Not Walking in the Air
We're in the middle of one of those funny, slightly unpredictable times of year, when you're as likely to come across a tiny oddball sleeper release as something which has been produced and marketed as an aspiring blockbuster. As I say, it's a product of the time of year: it's too late for full-blown blockbuster season, but similarly too early for the genuine awards contenders to start making their appearance. So you do tend to get a lot of mid-budgeted genre movies of different kinds, and doing the rounds at the moment is the new Jo Nesbo (final O with a line through it) movie. I was rather impressed by a couple of Nesbo adaptations which came out about five years ago, Headhunters and Jackpot. Those were both foreign language movies given a subtitled release over here, but the new movie is Anglophone. Directed by Tomas Alfredsen, it's a grisly, hard-edged crime thriller, definitely not for children or the squeamish, entitled The Snowman.
Things get underway with a prologue of unremitting grimness, set in the wilds of Norway, setting the tone for the rest of the movie rather economically. Brightening this up a little is an English-language cameo from Sofia Helin, most famous outside of Scandinavia for her role as the detective with ASD from the TV show The Bridge: sadly, she is not in the rest of the movie.
We are then introduced to top Norwegian homicide detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender), who is – all together now – brilliant at his job but lousy at holding his personal life together. As the movie opens he is forever waking up in the park after a heavy night on the booze, which is not something to be done lightly in Oslo in the middle of winter. 'I need a case, I need to work!' cries Harry when taken to task by his do-everything-by-the-book superior. 'I can't help it if the murder rate is so low,' snaps his boss. Luckily, plenty of murders are just about to happen, so we can all breathe a sigh of relief.
Yes, someone is going about kidnapping and then murdering women in a quite horrific fashion, and leaving snowmen as his calling card. (It's never made completely clear whether the snowman-building happens before or after all the dismemberment takes place; it strikes me as a rather cumbersome M.O. for a modern serial killer, but what do I know about these things.) Harry isn't initially assigned to what's at first believed to be a routine missing persons case, but he is friends with the officer who is (Rebecca Ferguson), and together they figure out what's going on. But can they locate the killer before yet more women (yes, it is mostly women) meet a sticky end?
As I said, I was properly impressed and entertained by both the previous Nesbo (O with a line through it) movies that I saw, primarily by the cleverness of the plotting and the black humour running through both stories. Then again, it does seem that our Scandi cousins have a knack for this sort of thing – I'm not a big fan of the label 'Scandi noir' (or 'Nordic noir'), but detective shows from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have become something of a fixture on at least one UK TV network, and it seems to me that The Snowman is trying to tell the same kind of story in the same kind of way.
All the elements are there, I suppose – troubled family backgrounds, people keeping secrets from their loved ones, corruption in high places, gore – but the actual story just isn't quite up to scratch. The Magic Wand of Improbable Coincidence gets waved over the plot fairly frequently, to say nothing of the way that the story digresses away from the serial killer plot and gets mixed up in shady goings on involving a prominent businessman (J.K. Simmons) and a bid for the 'World Winter Sports Cup' (I suspect the Winter Olympics people took one look at the script and said 'No way are you using our name in this!').
The story gets lost in other ways too: there's a bit of a cold case element to the plot (the killer has been at it for ages), and the film chooses to incorporate this by having a few flashbacks. I'm not sure these were strictly necessary, but even if they were, I think it was probably a mistake to centre them around a character played by Val Kilmer. Kilmer is not, to put it delicately, ageing gracefully, nor has his acting range improved – the fact that I'd got the impression from somewhere or other that he had actually died is neither here nor there. His appearance is, in short, rather a distraction.
Also problematic is the way that the film-makers don't really seem to be content with making a good solid detective thriller – every now and then a scene comes along suggesting this movie wants to be a serious drama about the personal lives of Harry and those people around him. Well, Fassbender and his fellow actors are capable enough, but again the result is a film which lacks focus and often feels laborious on a thematic level – it's clear from very early on that it's largely about what it means to be a good (or bad) parent, but the script keeps grinding on about this, rather unsubtly.
I'm not sure there is a way to subtly depict various people having their heads literally blown off or body parts removed with power tools (the killer has a special gadget just for this purpose, I wonder if you can get one on Amazon), but if there is, The Snowman does not hit upon it. I would say this is a very strong 15, certificate-wise: there's some proper gore and grue in the course of the movie. Personally, I am mostly desensitised to this sort of thing, but I am aware a lot of people aren't – and there are horror-movie levels of splatter at times during The Snowman.
This is really a case of a movie which has all the right ingredients – good cast, interesting premise, strong set of genre conventions – but which fumbles putting them together. It's watchable, but the story is too often unclear, and arguably not really strong enough to justify the various excesses of the film's violence.
Then again, I suppose we should talk about the whole emphasis of a film like The Snowman. The treatment of women, especially attractive young actresses, is a talking point as I write, with a culture that seems to accept their exploitation and objectification increasingly coming under scrutiny. There is not, to my knowledge, any suggestion that the makers of The Snowman have been accused of any wrongdoing or suspect behaviour. But even so, this is a movie in which male-on-female violence is both graphic and endemic. Every major female character is a victim at some point or other; the only significant nudity in the film is that of a young, female actor, and it's gratuitous. Which would be worse, I wonder, to be a serial abuser of women who makes films that are classy and morally unimpeachable, or a decent human being who nevertheless makes films which shows women primarily as sexual objects to be used and abused? It's an artificial distinction, I know, but it seems to me that if you got rid of every grasping studio executive, along with all the others who exploit their positions of power, you would still be left with a lot of misogynistic exploitation in the actual movies themselves. If the movies seem to have a problem with their treatment of women, it's arguably because the fact we still buy tickets sends the message that this is what we want to see.