Review: The Snowman

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Writer: Peter Straughan, Hossein Amini, and Søren Sveistrup. Based on the novel by Jo Nesbø

Composer: Marco Beltrami

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, J.K. Simmons

Genre: Crime, Drama, Horror, Mystery, Thriller

Rating: R

There’s a crazy amount of talent attached to this project. Michael Fassbender and J.K. Simmons need no introduction, while viewers may recognize Rebecca Ferguson from her previous work in Life and The Girl on the Train. Behind the camera is cinematographer Dion Beebe of Edge of Tomorrow and Chicago. Also on the crew are two wonderfully accomplished editors, Thelma Schoonmaker (The Departed, Wolf on Wall Street, Goodfellas, and Shutter Island) and Claire Simpson (The Reader, Platoon, and Wall Street). This is all helmed by the critically acclaimed Swedish director, Tomas Alfredson, most famous for Let the Right One In, which many people claim is a masterpiece. So when it comes to The Snowman, with such a strong cast and crew, and also not forgetting that it’s based off a bestselling novel, it’s obvious that we’ll at least be treated to an above average film firmly belonging in the crime thriller genre.

Famous last words…

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: This movie is a crime thriller and revolves around the actions of a serial killer. The murderer possesses a wired noose-like instrument, which constricts and slices off body parts. Fingers are removed using this method, while another character is decapitated like this, the latter of which is filmed at an angle where the actual act isn’t shown in detail, and only the spray of blood is seen. Two characters gruesomely have their head blown off by a shotgun blast – the entire act is depicted on camera. Beheaded corpses are shown. A severed head is found atop a snowman. A corpse is found in the snow, mutilated into pieces, and is being feasted upon by wildlife. The amount of blood seen in each crime scenes is realistic, and not excessive. Some characters fall victim to thin ice, falling through and drowning. A chicken is decapitated – the ax isn’t seen, rather the head falls to the floor and a line of blood rolls down the log.

Language/CrudeHumor: The f-bomb and s-word are dropped sporadically, along with more milder swears, the worst being “c*cksucker”. Jesus’ name is used in vain, along with other Biblical words such as “h*ll” and “d*mn.”

Drug/Alcohol References: Two characters are said to be alcoholics, though actual consumption of alcohol is rarely seen. Cigarettes are smoked frequently. A character takes prescription pills.

Spiritual Content: None.

Sexual Content: A submissive woman has her breasts revealed by a controlling man, whilst another man snaps a photo of her. A man and a woman flirt and make arrangements to have sex later on in the evening. She is seen prepping the room and undressing into a nighty, awaiting his arrival. One character admits to having an abortion in the past, while the film focuses on several broken relationships where a child’s father is unknown or the marriage is on the verge of collapse.

Other Negative Content: There are no character arcs or journeys. Therefore the motivations behind anyone’s actions, whether good or evil, aren’t explored whatsoever. Alcoholism? No explanation. Sexploitation? No explanation. Murder? Not even that is properly fleshed out. There are no major themes in this story as this film barely maintains its narrative presence.

Positive Content: It may be a (very) long bow to string, but it could be argued that the story does promote the idea that despite a person’s flaws, everyone’s life intrinsically holds value.

Review

“A good story told well,” is a common phrase that every critic likes to slide off their tongue. It means they’ve witnessed something wholesome and satisfying; it epitomizes what the art form should be at its core. So it’s with great distress to report that The Snowman is a bad story told poorly. There is little to nothing to be gained from watching this film.

Set in the winter months of Oslo, Norway, this film wants to be Wind River. It aims to present a tantalizing cat and mouse chase after a cold-blooded killer within a hostile, unnerving environment. As a result, the scenery is pretty and the sets are atmospheric, and that summarizes all I can really praise about this film.

The Snowman catastrophically fails in the basic lessons of storytelling. With so much talent both behind and in front of the camera, one is really left begging the question as to why they weren’t able to present what is essentially a film’s one and only job. In an interview with The Independent, director Tomas Alfredson revealed that the production was so rushed that 10% to 15% of the script wasn’t even filmed. It shows. Whether it was merely an excuse or not to deflect negative criticism is a rather moot point, as it ultimately does offer a neat explanation as to everything that is wrong with this film.

I was the only one in the cinema. That should have been my first clue as to what I should have been expecting.

Michael Fassbender and Rebecca Ferguson offer serviceable performances. They act well with what they have, though sadly it isn’t much. Fassbender plays the lead, detective Harry Hole, and the real issue isn’t with the acting, but rather with how the character is presented within the context of the story. A drunkard who has lost his way, Hole is an insufferable character, though savvy movie-goers will instinctually expect that his behavior will be explained and developed as the film progresses.

This is what happened in the critically acclaimed film, Manchester By the Sea, where a horribly negative person’s past is suddenly revealed to the audience, and magically all the pieces fall into place and they are seen in a new light. This doesn’t happen in The Snowman. At all. Hole mopes about on screen and there’s no real explanation offered as to why on earth he is constantly in a deliriously infuriating funk.

He has an unorthodox relationship with his ex-girlfriend and her child, as he’s found to still be lingering around while she dates another man. How that odd situation came about is never explained, nor why he’s still invested, or why they broke up in the first place. By the film’s conclusion, Hole’s character journey is incomplete even though the film has the veneer of wanting to come full circle, basically because we never knew who Harry Hole was in the first place.

With no character arc, there’s essentially no story to be told. We watch a detective do his job. It’s an interesting profession, but that’s not the reason why people go to the cinemas. Yet this is only one of the plethora of issues that The Snowman contains. It is but one example of what occurs to the narrative when crucial pieces of the storytelling process are missing.

Those in the business will know that it’s a rare occasion for a film to be shot in chronological order. Instead, shooting schedules are usually dictated by the availability of locations, cast schedules, weather forecasts, and other logistical issues. What this means is that the 10 to 15% which is missing isn’t in one bulk. It’s not in the second half of the middle or a chunk from the beginning. It’s little pieces from everywhere. Indeed, if it was a single large section, it may have been easier to rectify in the edit. If The Snowman was a light-hearted comedy or another genre, then this may have been forgivable. But for pieces of a story to be missing from a crime thriller – a narrative that relies on gathering all the pieces together and is the factor that appeals to audiences most about the genre – it turns The Snowman into a complete travesty.

No. No, you didn’t. Even this note doesn’t appear in the movie. Oh, the irony.

There are many examples. A task force is created to hunt down the killer, though they are barely seen communicating with each other, let alone part of the plot as a whole. Rebecca Ferguson seemingly goes rogue while tracking down a lead, which is only tenuously linked to the rest of the story in the first place. Her character’s past is possibly the most developed, though even then there’s barely enough screen time to carry the emotional weight needed for it to impact audiences.

While it’s called The Snowman, no character actually talks of the killer’s titular modus operandi. The murderer’s mindset or psyche is barely touched upon, and the final monologue once everything has been revealed only provides a shallow explanation for their actions. What’s more infuriating is that the entire investigation unintentionally fools audiences into thinking that they may have missed something; that they weren’t paying enough attention to pick up on all the small nuances.

Subtle films are great, but this isn’t one of them. The required information simply doesn’t exist, and the entire storyline is only tenuously linked together with threadbare leads. There are whole subplots that appear to have little, if nothing, to do with the story. At its conclusion, one can step back and realize that the investigation was incredibly straightforward, being solved within two or three steps, and it’s a case of the movie being horribly convoluted and confusing despite its simple roots. Those missing scenes may have been what strengthened the need or explained to the audience why the characters felt compelled to chase down what only ended up being red herrings.

The biggest, most inexcusable problem is that the narrative is absent of its catalyst moment. As far as story beats go, it’s the biggest one. Beginning. Middle. End. That’s the basic outline of a story. The catalyst is what propels the hero forward, out of their day-to-day routine, and into a new chaotic environment, one that they must overcome. In crime thrillers, it’s obvious–someone is murdered. I checked my watch at the forty-five mark, and that event still hadn’t happened yet! When it does finally occur, since so much time has already passed, it’s hard to really say if the murder was meant to be the story beat that propelled the narrative into its second act. Without a strong catalyst, the beginning and middle are blurred together, which ends up being a massive bore.

The Snowman has a way of building, and building, and building, luring the audience into thinking that it’s attempting to create tension or maybe upend expectations, but it’ll all make sense and be worthwhile in the end. But there is no payoff. There are no stakes. One character is reported missing at night, and Harry Hole actually says he’ll check it out in the morning. Completely chill and seen moping about most of the time, somehow we are meant to believe that he was so busy working the case that he forgot all about a family event. If there’s any sense of urgency, then it’s certainly not conveyed to the audience. And without stakes or some kind of ‘ticking time bomb’ plot mechanic where everything has to be solved within a certain timeframe, then this story is no different than a detective casually perusing a cold case file.

Looking through the list of films I’ve seen this year, I’m currently debating whether The Snowman is actually the worst one. Near the bottom is The Emoji Movie. Now, we all love to pile on the hate for that movie, though let’s be real here: its biggest crime is that it’s incredibly bland, while it completely insults our intelligence with its overuse of product placement and first world problems. But at least it tells a story. If I had DVDs of The Emoji Movie and The Snowman in my hands and I had to watch one, I’d pick the banal cartoon (granted, it is the shorter one of the two which does help its cause)!

The long-standing champion for the worst film of the year is Transformers: The Last Knight. Similar to The Snowman, it’s a boring mess of a story that’s barely coherent. So action-packed to the point of comical stupidity, the plot loudly rambles on without allowing any time to breathe, wearing the audience down as though the film is an endurance test. Yet, if one were to watch Transformers: The Last Knight in 10 to 15-minute bite-sized segments, it may actually be tolerable.

The same can’t be said for The Snowman. At no point was the story engaging or thrilling; no segment of the film is remotely entertaining. Even the finale falls flat, with Harry Hole making one of the stupidest decisions seen in this genre, and featuring an action sequence that’s so badly shot that it’s confusing as to whom is injuring who. The Last Knight may be mindless, with no standout action scene, but at least Michael Bay knows how to pull off a fight sequence. Therefore, if Transformers: The Last Knight is the more appealing film to watch, even if all it offers is pretty explosions… then, my friends, we have a new winner for the worst film of 2017 thus far.

My only saving grace in this film was that the cinema was located on a pokestop, allowing me to restock on balls in Pokemon Go every five minutes. I was that bored. If you’ve ever watched a classmate perform a speech in school or college that they’ve only researched and written in the hours before it was due, then you’d know what it’s like to watch this movie. It’s tedious, poorly presented, unengaging, and simply not worth anyone’s time. As they say, “A job worth doing is worth doing well.” So where does that leave The Snowman? If they couldn’t finish the film and do the job properly, then quite frankly, it shouldn’t have been released.

Now I know how gamers feel.

Just admire the scenery.

Positives

+ Framing of shots. + Setting. + Acting.

Negatives

- Everything else.

The Bottom Line

With an overabundance of problems, The Snowman commits the greatest cinematic sin of all: it forgets to tell a story.

 

4

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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