Michael Fassbender may be one of the weirdest judges of franchise material working right now.
While I could have watched four or five entire films of his Magneto hunting down Nazis and murdering them with his mutant powers, Fassbender seemed to grow increasingly bored over the course of his X-Men movies, and in Apocalypse, he gives one of the most disinterested performances of his career. Assassin’s Creed is a catastrophe, a sleeping pill that is about as exciting as reading a video game walkthrough, and Fassbender’s so dull in it that it’s almost like he repels the eye like you bounce off of him when you try to watch what he’s doing. And, sure, there are fans of the why-are-we-calling-these-Alien-movies-again recent entries by Ridley Scott, I am baffled by their appeal. Fassbender’s good in them, but I don’t care about anything his character’s doing.
The Harry Hole books seem like a pretty easy way to mix things up, and fairly easy to approach for an actor. There are eleven books in the series so far, and as a character, he’s pretty familiar. Brilliant, driven, terrible at personal relationships, and a raging alcoholic, he’s that special kind of literary detective. He is a shambles in every way except his ability to put together clues no one else can see. Like many detective series, the Harry Hole books are as much about where they’re set as they are about the people in them. They are built on big theatrical flourishes and oh-so-clever plotting, and the continuity of the overall series moves at a crawl so Harry’s always just enough of a disaster as a person to give things color. They’re fine. I don’t love them, but the six or seven I read are enjoyable programmers.
That’s why it’s a little mystifying to see the firepower they threw at this thing. Hiring Tomas Alfredson to direct The Snowman (or Martin Scorsese, the original choice) is like hiring chef Roy Choi to heat something up in the microwave. They hired some good writers, and then they hired an amazing cast including Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, JK Simmons, Toby Jones, Chloe Sevigny, and James D’Arcy. On paper, all of this looks like it should be an easy slam dunk. Instead, it adds up to what can only be described as a scorched-earth failure, a near-complete misfire that doesn’t even work on the most fundamental levels as a film.
The film opens with the very dramatic death of a woman as her young son watches, setting into motion one of the most nonsensical plots in a serial killer police thriller ever. Since Se7en, we’ve had armies of hyper-intelligent murderers playing mind games with the police, so it’s well-worn territory. The key to everything is contained in that opening scene, and it might be the silliest backstory to why a killer is a killer since 1982’s Hospital Massacre. But, hey, why settle for one silly backstory when you can have two? There’s also a cop in the film who isn’t what they appear to be, serving their own mysterious agenda, and it’s all because of a story involving their dead father, played in flashbacks by Val Kilmer.
We need to take a moment to discuss Val Kilmer in this film. This is the least lifelike thing I’ve seen in a movie since the creepy baby in American Sniper. He looks like someone’s wearing a Val Kilmer-as-dying-Doc-Holliday Halloween mask that’s several sizes too big so they had to staple it to the sides of their head so it wouldn’t move. It appears that he’s dubbed by someone else in the film because the voice coming out of him does not match anything we’ve ever heard come out of Kilmer in the last 30 years he’s been an actor. It also appears that his mouth has been actually CGI’d at times. I wish I was exaggerating. It’s like someone stole the wax figure of Kilmer from Madame Tussaud’s, but they stored it wrong so it half-melted, and now it’s playing a cop in a flashback. It is insane. I wanted to reach out to the people around me in the theater to ask, “Are you seeing this? Is this really happening in the movie? Did they really cast Val Kilmer so they could dub him?” And if it’s an issue of him being too ill to work, it’s the strangest possible way to handle it, because it becomes profoundly noticeable. They couldn’t highlight it anymore if they tried. I think Kilmer’s one of those guys who has moments in his filmography where he burned so bright that it’s almost impossible to reconcile him with the person we see here. It feels like a different film keeps trying to hijack Alfredson’s film, and the tones are at such war that it just stops the film cold every time they flashback.
Alfredson is very good at playing things subtle, but there’s nothing subtle about this material. His underplaying of things here leans more towards incomprehensible than subtle and reading that they didn’t even get to shoot as much as 15% of the script certainly seems like it couldn’t have helped editors Thelma Schoonmaker and Claire Simpson make any sense of this mess. The problems go way deeper than that, though. There are so many weird, pointless, ham-handed ideas proposed in the film, in scene after scene, that you eventually have to just surrender to the ridiculous so you can get to the end of the damn thing. There’s some striking work by cinematographer Dion Beebe, and Marco Beltrami’s score does everything it can to help make this all feel urgent and terrifying. But it’s ladling some of the finest film craft money can buy onto a foundation of pure garbage. This is where matching someone with the right script becomes so essential. When I saw Let The Right One In at Fantastic Fest, it was before anyone was talking about it. It was 9:00 in the morning and none of us were particularly awake. We also weren’t expecting anything from the film. It was clear from the start that Alfredson understood that book and that he knew exactly how to bring it to life. His casting, his visual choices, his score, the precision of the cutting and the way he handled tension… it all made him look like someone who would be a major voice as a filmmaker. It was an exciting moment. Here, he’s just plain not the guy to make this material work. He doesn’t seem interested in Harry Hole or his personal life, and the investigation is a total joke. Neither side of the film seems to engage him, so it all just comes off as this half-hearted muddle by someone who is so visibly good at what they do.
Fassbender never figures out how to make Harry into anything more than his tics. He’s the kind of alcoholic who goes to sleep on the street in the snow because he’s super-drunk, i.e. the kind of alcoholic that I really only know from movies. He’s incapable of making it indoors before he passes out, but when he’s got a case, he’s completely fine and doesn’t seem to even notice he’s not drinking. He’s an asshole because it drives the plot, not because it’s honest character writing. Even though it’s been done a lot, there’s still something to examining how someone can be high-functioning in one part of their life and absolutely unable to cope in another, and an honest look at that has value. Harry is whatever he has to be for the scene, and there’s no rhyme or reason to it. He has a troubled relationship with the son of Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), his ex-girlfriend. Oleg (Michael Yates) is a young teenager, and he’s got no dad. There are guys who drift in and out of his life, and Harry seems interested in sticking around and being the kid’s friend even if he and Rakel aren’t together anymore. In one scene, he’s genuine and making the effort, and in the next, he’s forgotten the kid exists. Again… you write that as an actual statement on character, great, but it’s like the movie has no idea why it’s showing you anything. What does this say about Harry? What is the film’s larger idea about motherhood and family responsibility and fatherhood and how children get broken? These are pretty big things, very real and treating them like mere plot mechanics here is reductive, and the film gets it all wrong anyway. It ends up feeling gross and exploitative, and worse than that, phony.
The film is filled with weird performances from talented people. I’m not sure if I think JK Simmons is more or less bizarre here than Chloe Sevigny, but it’s a real neck-and-neck race. With the tone problems and the script issues, it never really congeals into something that feels like a movie. If this was the unwieldy pilot for a TV series about Harry Hole (and that final shot of him in the film makes it feel like one), there is little chance I would ever go back for a second look. Even the title feels like a non-starter, with the snowman motif doing absolutely nothing for the film. It never pays off, and it’s certainly not scary.
To paraphrase the film’s poster, based on one of the clues the killer leaves for Harry, MISTER POLICE YOU COULD HAVE BEEN A GOOD MOVIE I GAVE YOU ALL THE RIGHT PEOPLE. Maybe you’ll catch the next one, Harry, because this one got away.
Running time: 119 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic