Everything interesting about The Snowman happens around the main thrust of the plot. Alcoholic detective Harry Hole’s (Michael Fassbender) search for the titular serial killer is pretty old hat in Nordic Noir subgenre. Much more interesting is Harry himself, a willfully old school genius-level investigator who eschews newfangled devices like cars and phones and drinks to dull the incredible surfeit of empathy that lets him operate as Norway’s top murder cop. The film lives when we’re seeing how Harry relates to the people around him, be it his ex-girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her teenage son, to whom he still feels paternal affection; his freshly-minted partner, Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson); his long-suffering boss (Ronan Vibert); or anyone else in the quite impressive cast (JK Simmons, Toby Jones, Chloe Sevigny and Val Kilmer all crop up).
Unfortunately, this is a murder mystery, culled from the lengthy series of novels by Jo Nesbo (The Snowman is #7 of 11), and plot is paramount, and that’s where Tomas Alfredson’s film falls down. The script, which involved the normally reliable Hossein Amini (Drive, The Wings of the Dove) and Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) manages the neat trick of being simultaneously unoriginal and murky, obfuscating familiar narrative and thematic elements in an overly complicated, structurally messy storyline.
It all centres, more or less, on the titular serial killer, who targets single mothers throughout Norway, striking only when the snow is falling and leaving a crude snowman as his calling card. It might have something to do with a similar series of murders that took place years ago, the investigation of which apparently drove investigator Gert Rafto (Kilmer in a fun cameo) to suicide. It might have something to do with predatory industrialist Arve Stop (Simmons), the public face of Norway’s bid for the Winter Games, who harbours private sexual obsessions.
It might be all manner of things, but what it really is, is an excuse to have soulful, damaged Fassbender stalk the wintry environs (rather beautifully shot by Dion Beebe) in search of his prey – someone whose identity, by the way, can be can be augured by simple subtraction rather than investigation, once you get a handle on who’s a name character and who’s just ambulatory set dressing. To be fair, that’s a pretty good time; Fassbender is as watchable as ever, even if The Snowman does little for his obvious franchise ambitions (with this and Assassin’s Creed under his belt, he’s two-for-two when it comes to unfulfilled sequels).
It’s almost impossible not to wonder what might have been if The Snowman had come out much earlier in the Nordic Noir period, when all this snow and blood and hidden horror was a much less familiar set of signifiers. This late in the game, there’s not much novelty to be found, especially if you know your Dragon Tattoos from your Midnight Suns. Alfredson, actually in a much more playful mood here than either his back catalogue or the material might suggest, does what he can, but the problems run deeper than anything on-camera execution (or, indeed, executions) can address. If you’re a tragic for the genre, The Snowman will scratch your itch, but don’t expect anything spectacular – and don’t expect to be seeing the further adventures of Harry Hole any time soon.