Given the critical mauling received by The Snowman, my rhyming synopsis and withering opening was prepared in advance: “Film with Fassbender / Return to sender” followed by “Some films are so bad they’re good, others like The Snowman are not.” Fortunately, my preconceptions did not match my experience which proves Max Mosley’s defence that one man’s pain is another man’s pleasure.
Sure, a number of things grate. The heightened RP, for one, which is odd given that the entire film is set in Norway. The woeful dubbing of Val Kilmer’s voice which makes him sound like Larvel “Motor Mouth” Jones from Police Academy. The plot which spins out in all directions like a spider’s web. And the general sense that you never really get under the skin of the characters, but watch from afar like a voyeur.
8% on the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes? Not on your nelly! Double it and add a number somewhere between 43 and 45. For 60% is more in the ballpark. Oscar material? Of course not. A Razzie? Harsh. I’d go for somewhere in the middle and award it a mish-mash of both: an Ozzie. A slang term for an Antipodean whose stereotypical breakfast of Vegemite shares something in common with The Snowman, in that they are both an acquired taste.
On the plus side, the screenplay by Hossein Amini, Søren Sveistrup and Peter Straughan (who worked with the director Tomas Alfredson on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) is deliberately glacial and keeps the viewer guessing at every turn. The cinematography by Dion Beebe, who won an Oscar for Memoirs of a Geisha, is striking and keeps the Nordic flag flying high in the minds of Hollywood hotshots. And the A-list cast, though not setting the peat on fire, are far from excrement. Particularly Fassbender whose trademark qualities of stillness, gravitas and authenticity suggest flickerings of a troubled soul.
As for the plot, if like me you’re not familiar with the novel of the same name by Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø, the key point is that young mothers with children are going missing faster than Donald Trump is running from the truth. And the man charged with searching for them is the appropriately named Detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) who we first see curled up on a park bench nursing a bottle of Vodka. He’s described by his side-kick Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) as “up there with the legends” but in reality his life like his house has “dry rot through the whole building”.
Between swigs of Vodka and gulps of Diazepam, he comes into possession of two documents which ignite his interest. A confidential file which links a missing woman to a wealthy businessman Arve Støp (J. K. Simmons) who is head of Oslo’s bid to host the Winter Games. And a handwritten letter which contains the phrase “by the time you have read this I will have built her a snowman.” “Her” being a woman who later goes missing. The kidnapper-turned-serial killer’s calling card: a snowman with coffee bean teeth.
The body count rises higher than a smackhead on Giro Day; red herrings come and go like a sperm donor at a fertility clinic; at one point the finger of suspicion turns to his colleague Bratt, whose past is revealed to be as chequered as Harvey Weinsten’s; and just when you think the film’s going to burst into life, the ending arrives with as much grace as an upturned tin of Alphabetti Spaghetti from which we are expected to read the ruins like a contestant on Countdown. To paraphrase the handwritten letter: by the time you have read them, her snowman will have melted!