Great cinema is partially defined by how it responds to the moment in which it’s made — think “The Best Years of Our Lives” and postwar America, “Bonnie and Clyde” and ‘60s counterculture, “Do the Right Thing” and post-Civil Rights racism. Well, folks, get ready for the zeitgeist’s newest captor. From cartoonishly evil politicians to sublimely vapid Instagram poets to everything in between, we’re living in the age of hopeless self-parody, and “The Snowman” is here to ensure we don’t forget it.
A symphony of bad decisions, “The Snowman,” directed by the respected Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson and based on Jo Nesbo’s bestselling novel, purports to tell the story of a Norwegian detective working a serial killer case. But its narrative strands are so jumbled and clumsily executed that it seems altogether presumptuous to claim that this movie is really about anything, save for the perversely fascinating question of how a team of talented individuals could produce such a whopping misfire. Alfredson claims that he ran out of production time and wasn’t able to film about 15 percent of the screenplay. As it turns out, that’s not a great way to make a movie. Who knew?
The detective at the center of the film is the ignominiously-named Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender), who by every hilariously obvious indication is a “Troubled Man.” When we first see him, he’s holding an empty bottle of vodka, has a cigarette dangling out of his mouth and bears the facial expression of someone who has been in battle since the Trojan War. At the office — Oslo Police headquarters — his boss tells him that he needs to shape up. “I’m dealing with it,” Harry responds.
Harry soon gets an anonymous letter in the mail, which has a cryptic message and a sketch of a snowman in place of a signature. When he later goes to a missing woman’s house and sees an eerily similar snowman built outside, he begins to connect the dots.
Unfortunately, neither he nor anyone else ever really finishes connecting the dots, thanks to a bunch of extraneous plot points that crop up all over the place. The main distraction is recently-transferred police detective and Harry’s de facto partner Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), who is obsessed with a case from nine years ago involving the alleged suicide of police detective Gert Rafto (Val Kilmer). In a series of disorienting flashbacks, we see Rafto working on a case that bears some resemblance to Harry’s.
Back in the present, Harry and Katrine find another victim, this time a woman lying headless in her chicken coop. When Harry discovers the woman’s head placed on top of a snowman, his worst fears are realized. Ours, on the other hand, are not. Even when topped with a human head, there’s something distinctly untroubling about the appearance of snowmen — an unfortunate fact, given that the film is filled with portentous close-ups of them.
The two detectives follow various confusing leads in their pursuit of the killer. One suspect is Dr. Vetlesen, whom the detective seems to find suspicious chiefly because he is a man with painted toenails. Vetlesen also has a connection to the smooth-talking, pervy mayor of Oslo, Arve Stop (J.K. Simmons), who in turn has some kind of connection with Gert Rafto. Needless to say, the film’s gestures toward conspiracy fall flat.
Surprising to no one who has ever seen a detective movie, the investigation takes Harry’s attention away from his family. Though Harry is currently single, his ex-girlfriend’s son looks to him as a father figure. The film illustrates Harry’s struggle to balance work and family with a groaning heavy-handedness, such as when Harry leaves town to follow a lead and forgets the father-son school camping trip he had promised to go on. And the portrayal of his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is as dramatically inert as everything else in the film.
Fassbender, who delivered one of the best performances in a studio movie this year as an android in “Alien: Covenant,” delivers in “The Snowman” one of the year’s worst. He’s a walking mound of complicated detective cliches, and even his attempts at humor make you want to turn away from the screen just to spare him the humiliation.
Alfredson’s direction is similarly dreadful. Though not having the full screenplay to work with certainly didn’t help, that which does make it into the film doesn’t exactly leave you wanting more. The editing is a mess, the camera work uninspired and the few instances of computer graphics genuinely terrible. He also inserts endless hysterical curiosities, from Harry solemnly eating ice cream on a bus to a very deliberate shot of a symmetrically sliced sausage to an old Norwegian man inexplicably wearing a pair of Beats headphones.
It’s moments like these that make “The Snowman” ascend, or perhaps descend, to a plane of utterly entrancing awfulness. It might be the worst film of the year, and yet it’s also, somehow, a must-see. Why bother with just another good film, when you could sit down and dig into this freshly half-baked meal of delicious failure?