You can learn a few things binge watching Netflix's new series Mindhunter just before taking in a screening of Universal's The Snowman. Such as, for instance, how to make a crime thriller that isn't completely, atrociously, perhaps even impressively, stupid.
The former, focused on detectives working the serial-killer beat in America's heartland, is a slick, dark, compelling series whose visual tics courtesy of director David Fincher overcome any clunky narrative obstacles, of which there are plenty. The latter, focused on detectives working the serial-killer beat in Oslo, is an awkward, needlessly dark, atrocious mess whose visual tics courtesy of director Tomas Alfredson amount to, basically, snow. So. Much. Snow. Shockingly, a fetish for the white stuff in no way overcomes any clunky narrative obstacles here – and they are legion.
In fact, remembering certain elements of Mindhunter – Fincher's meticulously staged establishing shots, his penchant for crime scenes with deeply saturated browns and greens – is the only relief one receives while suffering through The Snowman. The Netflix series – and Fincher's filmography in general, given his work on Se7en, Zodiac and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – easily proves that the serial-killer movie can be reinvented, resurrected and reborn countless times over. Yet somehow, Alfredson's The Snowman is an epic meltdown of genre, style and the very basics of filmmaking.
The Swedish director (of the more-than-respectable Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) isn't entirely to blame for this mess, the first big-screen adaptation of Jo Nesbo's bestselling detective novels. He's been handed a mess of a screenplay by a trio of writers who obviously have a deep affection for Nesbo's hard-boiled work, yet little love for pacing, plotting, character, dialogue or any of the other bits and pieces that go into making a movie watchable.
For starters, well, there's the start. The film opens with a young boy watching his mother kill herself in the icy wilderness of Norway, just after (or just before? It's never quite clear) he makes the most sinister version of a snowman outside of a Calvin and Hobbes comic. It is a prologue so baffling in tone, maddening in story and laughable in execution that you'd think there would be no place to go but up. But there is so much more room to fall.
Flash-forward a few years, and Norway has a new serial killer on the loose. (Really, the country's first serial killer as noted in Nesbo's novel, although the movie doesn't attempt to add that context.) The only man for the job, for reasons never quite explained, is a drunk yet remarkably fit Oslo detective named Harry Hole (hold your snickers, you'll need them for the ending). How do we know Harry's a drunk? Well, Alfredson frames the very first shot of the character holding an empty bottle marked "VODKA" in all caps. This also marks the film's only attempt at subtlety.
Harry is played by Michael Fassbender, an actor whose intense presence can sustain any lightweight work (in the past 13 months alone, he's had to carry The Light Between Oceans, Assassin's Creed and Alien: Covenant; someone please get this man a pair of proper spectacles so he can actually read the scripts being sent his way). Yet not even mighty Fassbender can save audiences from the fresh narrative and aesthetic hell that awaits, a film drowning in potboiler cop clichés, nonsensical twists, a bevvy of side characters who may as well be named Red, Ed and Herring, and the dumbest climax to come along in ages (this is where you'll need to spend those well-saved laughs).
Always interesting performers like J.K. Simmons and Val Kilmer are also wasted if not completely embarrassed, forced to speak in vaguely European-accented English for reasons unknown (although Kilmer's voice seems to have been completely redubbed, making me think the ADR was supervised by trash-master mystery man Tommy Wiseau).
"I know how much you want to make this work," Harry tells his partner (a similarly underused Rebecca Ferguson) toward the middle of the film, "but you can't force the pieces to fit." It's a line that screenwriters Peter Straughan, Hossein Amini and Soren Sveistrup surely slipped in as a last stab of self-deprecating humility.
So, after all these myriad complaints, why doesn't The Snowman completely melt away into a zero-star rating? Well, the only-in-Scandinavia costume design scores some points. Fassbender, Ferguson, Kilmer – they all look so comfortably snug in their big wool sweaters, their form-fitting winter jackets. I am truly glad they kept warm – even if it's cold comfort for the rest of us.