1. Movies are magic. They are, essentially, entire cities built on the fly, cities in which every citizen must work together toward a common goal to create something brand new out of nothing. Thousands upon thousands of moving parts operate individually, but in unison, a million little decisions adding up to a work of art that is consumed, dissected and shared by audiences across the world. It’s sort of a surprise any movie exists at all—let alone actually be good. A great movie is a miracle, cosmic kismet, though any movie can be a triumph of engineering, ambition and organization. Anyone who successfully finishes a movie: Good for you. Really.
2. These are the sort of “you did it!” thoughts that rattle through one’s brain watching The Snowman, which is as incompetently made as any studio movie in recent memory. The problem is not just that the movie is bad (though it is) or that it’s confusing (though it is), or that the movie is just humorless and self-serious and dumber than a box of rocks (though it is)—the problem isn’t even that it has a lead character named “Harry Hole” and doesn’t even seem to think that’s even slightly unusual or amusing. (Though wow, his name really is Harry Hole.) The real problem with The Snowman is that no one involved seems to understand how movies work. There is no setup, no character development, no suspense, no mystery, no suspects, no payoff. It’s almost a throwback to the early days of cinema, when early adopters were still figuring out the basics of storytelling and linear narratives, and didn’t quite have it down yet. This movie is impossible to follow, exhausting to sit through and seems to have been edited in a Cuisinart. The most impressive thing about The Snowman is that it ends.
3. Michael Fassbender, an electric actor who is so drowsy here that you want to give him an IV fluid drip, plays the aforementioned Harry Hole, a supposedly brilliant but now alcoholic detective in Norway who receives a note from someone called “The Snowman” claiming murder, or something. Hole teams up with a younger cop (Rebecca Ferguson) to try to solve the case, though it’s never entirely clear what the case we’re trying to solve is, or whether there are any clues, or what any of this is supposed to be about. There’s a fancy contraption that the killer uses to chop people’s fingers and arms off, and the killer also leaves a snowman outside the murder sites, and sometimes just outside people’s doors. Also, there is seriously a lot of snow in this movie. The snow does look great, but is still unlikely to get anyone to leave the Bahamas.
4. I’m struggling to even figure out what to say about a movie that I’m pretty certain is entirely impossible to understand. Director Tomas Alfredson, who made Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, two good movies which understand basic story structure, has admitted that The Snowman doesn’t work and doesn’t make sense. Seriously: “Our shoot time in Norway was way too short, we didn’t get the whole story with us and when we started cutting we discovered that a lot was missing. It’s like when you’re making a big jigsaw puzzle and a few pieces are missing so you don’t see the whole picture.” You’re telling me, pal—though isn’t it your job to at least pound a few puzzle pieces that don’t fit into some sort of cohesive shape? Even if it isn’t perfect, it looks like a puzzle when you’re done. The Snowman is barely a movie. One wonders if they should have just went ahead and turned it surrealist, putting the scenes in random order to make some sort of commentary on conventional narrative. Heck, maybe they did.
5. No actor escapes unscathed. J.K. Simmons shows up with his curious Norwegian accent, Chloe Sevigny appears as two twins, Charlotte Gainsborg looks bewildered and lord help me if someone can explain to me what Val Kilmer is up to. At several points, his dialogue doesn’t even seem to match his lips, so you can add “inability to dub properly” to the list of The Snowman’s cinematic sins. Fassbender is the lead of the film but keeps trying to hide from the camera. It’s difficult to blame him. I have no idea what this movie is going on about. I’m pretty sure the people who made it don’t either. I don’t know a movie could possibly be released to thousands of screens across the country in this condition. There’s going to be a great oral history written someday of just what exactly went wrong with The Snowman. I can’t wait to read it. At least that’ll be a mystery with some clues. And a story. And recognizable human beings. And something other than all that snow. They won’t be able to explain Val Kilmer either, though.
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Writer: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, James D’Arcy, Toby Jones, Val Kilmer
Release Date: October 20, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.