For all the vaunted notions of socialist paradises that the Scandinavian countries are feted for, there must be also in the Nordic soul a sense of pervasive dourness, of eternal gloom and perverse misery and hollowness. It's not a surprise given that Nordic mythology had their gods and goddesses die in epic battle, a fatalism that has never their Viking ancestors.
I sense this from their crime literature, from Swedish writer Stieg Larsson's Millennium series to that of his Norwegian counterpart Jo Nesbo. These books and film adaptations drown in misery, in perverse sex crimes, in morose detectives and generally unhappy people. I don't know why that is so, but it's something I've observed, making me wonder what it is about Scandinavians that makes them such miserable folk.
The Snowman is Nesbo's seventh novel of a series but curiously the first to be made into a film. I cannot say how close or far the film stays/veers from the original, or whether it was a good idea to adapt this particular novel into a hoped-for franchise.
I can say that The Snowman adaptation we were given is at times an unintended comedy, with the fact that so many highly talented people ended up creating something so wonderfully weird making things all the more baffling.
A young man is hidden away with his mother in a remote Norway, both caught by surprise by the arrive of 'Uncle Jonas'. Uncle Jonas quizzes the young boy on Norwegian history, and every time he gets an answer wrong he smacks the boy's mother. Quickly the boy finds out that 'Uncle Jonas' is really his daddy, and that his mother will reveal all to his family. For reasons unknown Uncle Jonas abandons them there, and for reasons unknown Mother & Boy either give chase or run away, and for reasons unknown Mother slides into thin ice, where Boy barely manages to escape as she drowns.
Move a few decades later, where we come upon our highly troubled lead character with the most unfortunate name of 'Harry Hole' (Michael Fassbender).* He's a drunk and heavy smoker prone to sleeping in the streets and nooks of Oslo but who despite all this looks extremely fit with firm abs and a taut body. I guess alcoholism, cigarettes and no protection against the winter does not affect your physical beauty.
Anyway, Harry Hole is a brilliant but troubled detective, struggling with his personal relationships with his ex Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her child Oleg (Michael Yates), who for reasons unknown cannot be told is Harry's biological child. She's moved on with Mathias (Jonas Karlsson), a doctor. Hole isn't highly regarded but for reasons unknown he's considered among the best detectives on the Oslo Police Force.
A new officer, Katrina Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) finds him and informally recruits him to help in a missing person's case. Using the newest technology Katrina and Harry look for a missing woman, who may be tied to a series of other missing women: all in troubled marriages with children, all of a certain age, all of whom may have seen a particular doctor.
There is also one other thing: a 'creepy' snowman is at the site of all the women's disappearances. Things come to a head when they are called about another missing woman, Sylvia Ottersen, only to find that she is very much alive and well. Oddly, as they leave her they are called again to find that 'Sylvia Ottersen' is reported missing. They return to find Ana Pedersen (Chloe Sevigny), her twin.
Sylvia's head on top of a snowman is found shortly afterwards.
Katrina suspects that these killings are tied to Arne Stop (J.K. Simmons), a billionaire working to get a "Winter World Cup Games" to Oslo. Stop is creepy, and as time goes by we find that Katrina is tied to this case more than she lets on. She is the daughter of Rafto (Val Kilmer), who we see in flashbacks that are nine years earlier investigating a similar crime. His investigation ended when he apparently killed himself in a drunken stupor.
Well, we get more red herrings, one of our leads is killed off because she appears to be totally dimwitted and our killer is revealed.
We end The Snowman with Harry, now missing a finger after his confrontation with the killer who threatened Oleg and Rakel (though curiously, not Mathias), agreeing to look in on another case. No explication is given as to how Harry Hole never lost a finger to the frostbite he should have endured by sleeping outside in the cold Norwegian night.
Golden Rules of Filmmaking: Never End Your Movie By Suggesting There Will Be a Sequel. I know that The Snowman is based on an already-established series, but given how badly they bungled this maiden voyage, what made them think anyone would want to sit through more?
Director Tomas Alfredson made an absolute mess, primarily due to his decision to not allow anyone any actual emotions. Poor Harry Hole (again, a name that lends itself to total mockery with everyone in the film apparently oblivious to how it sounds). I know that Alfredson and Fassbender wanted to make Harry Hole into this troubled being, but as played by Fassbender Harry has no emotion even in things that do require some, like when dealing with Oleg.
You know how The Snowman wants us to think of Harry when you see that it takes twelve minutes into the film before Harry actually says something. Up to that point, removing the prologue, Harry just stares about in misery and stumbles through the streets of Oslo, apparently none the worse for ware. Alfredson even gives us an Obligatory Shirtless Scene were despite being a lush who hasn't slept well in days or weeks still looks breathtakingly beautiful.
We even get a hint of a crotch shot to marvel at the magnificence of Michael Fassbender.
Worse, the adaptation by Peter Straughan, Hossein Amini and Soren Sveistrup makes a lot of the characters dumb. For being such a brilliant detective (and to be fair, his interrogation of the little girl showed a deft touch), Harry is also incredibly stupid; he fails to note that if the missing woman had just run off with her lover, she left her purse behind, something Katrina noticed.
Not that Ferguson was any better. The revelation of her 'secret' came across as rote more than shocking, and her death came across as more hilarious than shocking or sad. She seems to want to outdo Fassbender's catatonic manner. Granted the script made her look almost pathetically idiotic and with contrived moments, but she wasn't that compelling a character to begin with. Simmons appeared to try to sound like Fassbender in terms of accent, but the real piece de resistance was Kilmer, whose accent was even stranger but no less hilarious.
The plot is a mishmash of cliches and straight-up nonsense. There is no sense of urgency or emotion to finding the missing women or tracking down the killer. The worst part of it all is that The Snowman drags at its nearly two-hour running time.
Actually, I'm going to walk that back a bit. The worst part is the editing, an atrocious jumble that made things illogical when they weren't hard to follow. We jump around from past or present almost at a whim, and the climatic fight between Harry and 'the killer' is so confused that you get no sense of what is going on or how things happened. It was almost as if they tried to pull a fast one: make up for the boredom by making things confusing in the false hope of making it 'exciting'.
The Snowman may hint at a series of films, but for now, the end result make us not care one bit about more Harry Hole adventures. To answer the question, 'no, I would not like to build a snowman'.
*I understand that in the original novels, his name is pronounced 'Ho-leh', but again, for reasons unknown, the filmmakers opted to make it 'Hole', making things just even weirder.