Michael Fassbender trudges through the deep Scandinavian snow, looking very tired and hungover. A gunshot rings out, despite the desolation and lack of any cover for miles. He collapses, blood oozing from a wound in his chest, staining the snow a deep crimson. As he raises his head to look through a suddenly blinding snowstorm, he sees the snowman, gun grasped in its stick finger, grinning maniacally.
“It was you, all along!” cries Fassbender, squeezing the bottle of vodka he did not have two frames ago.
“Yes,” says the snowman. “It all makes perfect sense, Mister Police. I gave you all the clues.”
…OK, so none of that happens in The Snowman, but it could have and it would not have made one single difference to the film.
On paper, The Snowman should be good. It’s directed by Tomas Alfredson, who also did Let the Right One In and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It has a strong cast, headed by Fassbender and backed by Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, JK Simmons, Toby Jones, James D’Arcy, and even Val Kilmer. It was produced by Martin Scorsese and edited by Thelma Schoonmaker. It’s based on a book by Jo Nesbo, a seminal entry into the Nordic noir genre, and part of an extensive series of books featuring alcoholic detective Harry – ahem – Hole (I choose to believe that this sounds better in Norwegian).
Well, according to Alfredson, he didn’t get to film something like 25% of the script, and that’s why the film has threads that lead nowhere, characters that mysteriously vanish and others that are just as mysteriously introduced, a confused timeline, and more than a few cuts that move from one scene to the next with no transition. It does not, however, explain the sheer number of shots of Michael Fassbender staring alcoholically into space, or British actors sort of trying to do Scandinavian accents and then giving up after a few lines.
The plot of The Snowman involves our unfortunately monikered detective tracking down a killer who builds snowmen in people’s front yards and then murders the mother of the family. This may have some connection to some other murders that happened years ago in Bergen, but we don’t know. It may also have some connection to a tycoon and an abortion doctor, but we also don’t know. There’s really a lot we don’t know, and we won’t ever know, because the film will never, ever tell us.
Is The Snowman a good film? No, not even remotely. It might have been a good film, if the plot holes were filled in, if the scenes had transitions, if there were a few establishing shots, some continuity editing, some script editing, some…character…arcs. If the conclusion made sense. If the beginning made sense. I haven’t read Nesbo’s book, but presuming that the same person is the murderer, I would like to know if the book filled in those elements a bit more thoroughly. But, let us not dwell on what The Snowman fails to do (which is everything), but what it succeeds at. Because it really is one of the worst films of 2017 but also, improbably, the best.
I have a special affection for failures like this. It tries so hard, it’s so earnest, it believes so passionately that it’ll all come out right in the end. And there are certainly some individual scenes with merit. I was genuinely creeped out by the scene that has the killer following a mother home from work, then building a snowman in her yard. I found the use of “Hall of the Mountain King” absolutely perfect (and cinematically referential!). And I even sort of cared whether or not Harry took care of his ex-girlfriend’s son properly. Val Kilmer is there. That was nice to see. There are some effective red herrings, which admittedly would have been more effective if we knew what they were supposed to actually be about. I still don’t get what the Winter Games had to do with this, though, or who JK Simmons was, or why that one woman took off her dress at that party.
But The Snowman bends around itself so weirdly that it becomes almost masterful, like a 300 piece puzzle that you can’t put together because some deranged two-year-old swallowed ten of the pieces, so you just sorta jam things together. You can see all the seams of the film, every cut or line more inexplicable than the last. Such as the moment when Harry’s boss asks if there have been any homicides and Harry’s all, “No, just missing persons,” when the previous scene was him discovering a decapitated woman. That sort of mistake is practically a rule in The Snowman, unconcerned as it is with minor things like continuity editing and plot structure. There’s no method to this, of course, but the whole thing sticks together in an oddly charming way.
The Snowman gave me an existential crisis. It’s so purposeful and yet so inept, so meaningless. You can follow the threads that come to nothing, that vanish like, um, snowflakes in water. It’s madness, it’s ridiculous, it’s very nearly surreal, if we were able to pull some undercurrent of political or cultural meaning from it. Which we can’t. And isn’t that the most surrealist act of all?*
*(No, it’s not.)