Murder mysteries have a sacred pact with the audience. They have to give us enough clues to cling to the thread of the plot, some hints that point toward the “real killer,” some sense that the wrongs we see are going to be righted, that evil will be punished.
They have to make sense. They have to play fair.
“The Snowman,” a three-screenwriter adaptation of Norwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbø’s novel, is a pitiless puzzle that points in more directions than you can count in two hours. Casting big names for single-or-two-scene performances are here to do nothing more than throw us off the scent. Fascinating back-stories are introduced, and killed off without real resolution.
It sets up its serial killer’s back story in an opening scene that does nothing to point to the real killer, but makes us wonder if the hero has some long-forgotten connection to him. It sets up a murderer’s modus operandi — building scary snowmen to taunt victims, and later to contain body parts, menacing, child-like hand-written notes with drawings to the detective-hero — and then abandons it.
It’s a Nordic cheat.
The riveting Michael Fassbender plays Harry Hole, a detective “under suspension” for reasons we aren’t told, alcoholic and haunted by something that’s never explained. He is old school — asking the right questions, taking hand-written notes of only the details he figures matter — in an Oslo police department that’s got a new crime-crushing software/hardware system that collates daily notes, video records interrogations, tracks officers and stores everything in a master database.
Harry’s a loner who doesn’t buy into that. And when he gets a threatening note from “The Snowman,” with personal details and a hint of a murder to come — “I will build her a snowman.” — he KEEPS IT TO HIMSELF. Even after he meets a young wholly-digitized detective (Rebecca Ferguson) called in to investigate the latest missing mother in a string of such crimes.
But Katrine has one thing in common with Hole. She keeps her hunches, prior work and cold case files away from Harry…and from the other cops she works with.
So every woman we see, from the farm woman reported as “missing” by her “husband” (Chloe Sevigny), pulling the cops on the case before a crime is committed, to Harry’s ex-girlfriend (Charlotte Gainsbourgh), is in peril. Because the cops aren’t talking to each other, much less hurling their digital resources in the right direction.
A prologue has told us that the killer’s mania is driven by something we see in characters scattered all through the movie — uncertain patrimony. If you don’t know “Who’s your Daddy?” mommy’s at risk. A comment on Scandinavian open-mindedness about all matters sexual, paternal and maternal?
The cluttered pan-European cast (Toby Jones, Adrian Dunbar) includes the odd American. J.K. Simmons plays a popular rich philanthropist with a past. Val Kilmer, in flashbacks as a cop on earlier versions of this case, looks ghastly and sounds dubbed.
And almost none of them point, logically, toward a solution. Director Tomas Alfredson (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”) is used to dealing with complex plots, and the editing is by producer Martin Scorsese’s go-to cutter, Thelma Schoonmaker.
Neither of whom can connect the dots and conjure up a wholly coherent picture out of this script. It’s “Dragon Tattoo” complicated, without that one writer who could thin the material out, discerning between what is important and what should be treated as subtext, and cast accordingly.
Fassbender, Ferguson and Gainsbourgh always hold our attention. And cinematographer Dion Beebe (“Into the Woods,” “Edge of Tomorrow”) makes Norway a foggy, flurry-filled winter wonderland of shadows, scenery and snow. “Snowman’s” blue-tinted beauty is on a par with the yellowing dustscape of a climate-changed future captured in “Blade Runner: 2049.”
And the fact that we notice this, in endless scenes of cars dashing through wintry countryside, through canyon-like snowdrifts, of mountain trams and coast guard boats blasting through fjords, means that nobody is paying attention to raising tension or making it all make sense and playing fair in the process.
In the end, they’re simply content to cheat.
MPAA Rating: R for grisly images, violence, some language, sexuality and brief nudity
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourgh, J.K. Simmons, Chloe Sevigny, Val Kilmer
Credits: Directed by Tomas Alfredson, script by Peter Straighan, Hossein Amini, Søren Sveistrup, based on the Jo Nesbo novel. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:58