(Photo by: Arterra/UIG via Getty Images)
In light of the fact that Scandinavia is both irritatingly perfect and gently uninteresting it has, in recent years, attempted to redefine itself by establishing the genre of Scandi-noir – a sort of occult, parallel world that exists only on TV and in repetitive novels, where the Scandis make up for their slightly disappointing culture by habitually butchering each other behind snow drifts. Shows like ‘The Killing’ and ‘The Bridge’ have proven to be runaway successes. Images of red Volvos and turtlenecks and snatched conversations behind misty coffee shop windows have engulfed not only Britain but also the US, where ‘The Killing’ has since been adapted (ruined) for American audiences.
‘The Snowman’, directed by Tomas Alfredson (who also helmed the marvellous ‘Let The Right One In’) and inspired by the seventh book in Jo Nesbǿ’s Norwegian crime odyssey, represents Scandi-noir’s latest breakout onto the big screen. The plot revolves around Oslo police officer Harry Hole’s ( genuinely his name) attempts to thwart a serial killer who has a penchant for leaving scowling snowmen at the scene of his crimes. Whilst the trailer appeared both competent and grimly elegant, all those puffy anoraks and frigid harboursides did feel a little derivative of the TV dramas that inspired them. So it is refreshing that ‘The Snowman’ does differ from its Scandi-pedigree in one crucial way: it’s unspeakably awful.
To clarify, I don’t mean merely disappointing but proudly, magnetically dreadful.
What the immensely talented cast and crew have achieved is a painstaking, painful exercise in perfecting disaster. Somehow this relatively simple story has been transformed into what appears to be a genuinely half-finished project in which nothing makes any sense at all.
Harry Hole (played by Michael Fassbender) is an alcoholic (delicately introduced via a slow pan out from an empty bottle of Vodka) who passes out on pavements and park benches but who simultaneously commands enormous respect in the force and proves intoxicating to women, which is confusing because he has the charm of a dual carriageway. When he’s not stumbling up to the window of his ex’s work-place and enticing her with his bloodshot eyes and the dribble on his chin, he’s forgetting to go on his step-son’s school trip (I’m not quite sure why he was invited in the first place) and indulging in a near permanent state of travel between Oslo and Bergen in pursuit of clues, or something. I wasn’t sure.
In fact it was never clear what anyone was doing (except for when people were actually in the process of being murdered) or why they were doing it because the film is edited so astonishingly badly that this is not an option. Plot threads flop into view and then disappear without a trace. The mould festering in Harry’s apartment is granted a more central role than either J.K. Simmons (a wealthy but dubious industrialist who is just around and about) or Toby Jones – another policeman? – to the point where one starts to believe that the damp itself could well be the killer. Flashbacks appear without warning and frequently serve no purpose but to confuse one as to the chronology of events as scenes of risibly incompatible tone spin into each other with the finesse of a collapsing tunnel.
Any profound or sensitive moments are ruined by bewildering creative decisions. In one scene, Harry is being emotionally berated by his teenage step-son Oleg for prioritising alcohol over family, but the two have to keep pausing their conversation because they are also inexplicably eating ice creams while riding a tram to the hospital. ‘You’re going to lecture me about alcohol?’ spits Oleg as Fassbender takes another lick of his Mr Whippy. ‘Don’t be a prick’, our hero retorts.
Drinks must wait, however, for there is a killer on the loose. Early on, the police superintendent apologises to a characteristically vacant Harry for ‘Oslo’s low murder rate’. He needn’t have bothered as it turns out that for the next 90 minutes Oslo will exceed the murder rate of San Salvador. Given the killer ostensibly strikes whenever the snow falls and it’s bang in the middle of Norwegian winter it’s really a miracle there’s anyone left to discuss it at all.
As implied, his trademark is to leave unintentionally hilarious CGI snowmen alongside his mutilated victims. Given the presence of very real snow in Norway, the motive behind depositing computer generated snowmen evolves into a more intriguing mystery than the one we are semi-invited to pursue. It certainly remains an enigma for longer; the identity of the killer is immediately obvious as he speaks exclusively in the soft, muted tones of a psychopath and is one of the only characters who is actually coherently introduced along with a name to remember him by.
To be fair, he is far from the only one to boast an incongruous accent as Norway has apparently been invaded and repopulated entirely by middle-class Englishmen. Almost everyone retains their home counties accents, including those characters with names like ‘Oleg’ and ‘Gunnar’. Perhaps this could have worked except not everyone got the memo – the Americans among the cast (J.K. Simmons and Val Kilmer) vainly attempt some weird approximation of an accent that is admirably not American but unfortunately also not of this world. Meanwhile, Oleg speaks like he’s in morning prayers at Charterhouse.
Luckily, there are ways to alleviate the incoherent tedium, all of which involve taking stock of the film’s absurdities. Perhaps it’s J.K. Simmons popping out suddenly from behind a cabinet (upon which the entire cinema rightly descended into hysterics). Or it’s observing that despite being an alcoholic, Harry never visibly drinks a drop and even rejects drinks, opting instead to have other people moan incessantly about alcoholism on his behalf. I personally found solace in counting the number of bridges that appear in the film and could only conclude that the crew had noted the critical acclaim of the Danish-Swedish drama ‘The Bridge’ and attributed its success entirely to the fact that it had a bridge in it.
Ultimately it remains difficult to describe ‘The Snowman’ as the cast and crew have taken to their task with the kind of comprehension and cohesion a family of tadpoles might if contracted to build the third runway at Heathrow. In many ways, it’s a bit of a treat to go and see such a candid, elemental cinematic disaster as they are mercifully few and far between. It doesn’t seem fair to hate it as it’s hilarious from start to finish. But make sure you don’t read the excellent book first. Then the joke is on you.
‘The Snowman’ is directed by Tomas Alfredson