The Snowman review: “more listless than laughable”

Michael Fassbender is as colourless as the wintry Nordic landscapes in this bland reading of Jo Nesbo's serial-killer thriller

Michael Fassbender

★★

It’s unusual for a whodunnit to have such a powerful sedative effect as The Snowman. How Tomas Alfredson – who demonstrated his mastery of mood with the superb Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Let the Right One In – has come to this is the only mystery worth solving.

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Serial-killer thrillers are so ubiquitous they’ve long since lost any relationship to reality, their protagonists’ outlandish crimes typically committed in response to fairly commonplace childhood traumas. They’re hard enough to swallow in book form, but by the time they reach the cinema screen, it can become nigh-on indigestible. The latest example to reach us is based on the 2007 bestseller by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo.

Set in Oslo and Bergen, the story sees mothers going missing after the year’s first snowfall, with snowmen found at the scene and grisly discoveries to follow. When we first meet lead investigator Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender), he’s doing a lot of drinking and staring into space. Fassbender is adept at drawing us in and illuminating the mindset of troubled, taciturn men but Hole is such a blank canvas it’s alienating. Rebecca Ferguson plays his spunky new colleague Katrine Bratt, who seems to be pursuing her own agenda. Among the suspects are JK Simmons’s creepy business magnate Arve Stop and David Dencik’s creepy doctor Idar Vetlesen.

Although it clocks in a fraction shy of two hours, The Snowman has been pared down to just the bare bones of a chiller, just the murders themselves and the most rudimentary plot machinations. The novel is often clunky and preposterous but, at well over 500 pages, it’s nowhere near this thin on detail. Here characterisation goes entirely out the window. Harry looks permanently haunted, yet there’s little information as to why, while Bratt’s character arc is curtailed.

We’re told Hole’s cases are so legendary they are studied at the police academy, yet there’s scant evidence of a brilliant mind: his deductions seem to mainly consist of him “testing” Bratt by asking her what she thinks. The snowman motif is hokey (and intriguingly impractical), the killer’s motivation is laid crudely out in the prologue, and the eventual unmasking could hardly be less surprising.

Hollywood stars, art-house icons and Nordic noir stalwarts mingle promisingly, albeit confusingly, with no agreement reached on what accent to use. Charlotte Gainsbourg, Chloë Sevigny and The Bridge’s Sofia Helin are among the big names with small parts. What a cast to waste!

If Fassbender’s Hole is an amateur in the maverick stakes, given that he can barely be bothered to put one foot after another, Val Kilmer shows him how you really go rogue with a performance of breathtaking strangeness. He plays Gert Rafto, the dishevelled detective previously in pursuit of “the Snowman”, who appears in flashbacks. He manages to be aggressively American despite barely moving his face, and scene where he climbs out of a window to spite a colleague is sure to raise a smile.

Sadly, the scares are lacklustre and, despite the spectacular scenery, the look of the film is blandly wintry. There’s a smattering of unintentional amusement – Hole offering Bratt some leftover sausage, Stop hiding very visibly behind a cupboard, every single second Kilmer is on screen – but The Snowman is more listless than laughable.

In the absence of actual suspense, further chuckles may well have been welcome; to that end, it might have been the smarter move to follow Kilmer round for the duration instead.

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The Snowman is released in cinemas on Friday 13 October