Monday, November 6, 2017

On the Big Screen :: Seeing it Before it Melts to Find Out Just How Bad it Really Was :: Tomas Alfredson's The Snowman (2017)

Beginning with a flashback, we open in the frigid hinterlands of Norway; a remote cabin specifically, where a policeman arrives with a pack of fresh supplies for the sole occupants -- a mother and her young son. And while this visit seems good natured at first, things quickly turn sinister as the man administers a history test to the boy; and for every hesitation or wrong answer received the man violently slaps the mother for his lack of education -- and slaps her so hard he eventually knocks her off a chair.

Here, the audience eventually pieces together the boy is the police officer’s illegitimate son, and when she threatens to reveal this to his wife, he storms off, threatening never to return, leaving them high and dry -- well, high and frozen to death. And that’s why the wife and son wind up in a Volvo, chasing him down the mountain and over the fjords on treacherously icy roads. And that’s also why they wind up spinning-out and find themselves on the middle of a not frozen enough lake. And while the boy gets out as the ice shatters underneath them, the distraught mother stays put and suicides out, much to the distress of the boy.

Now, this opening coda gives us several tell-tale clues and signatures that this boy most likely grew up to be The Snowman: a notorious serial killer, who stalks and abducts women and dismembers them, leaving a snowman at the sight of the abduction and another where the body was dumped, usually with the victim’s head as the top snowball. The Snowman also taunts the police over his homicidal misadventures, sending cryptic notes to the lead detective, claiming all the clues to his motives and identity are there if they can piece it all together.

The Snowman’s latest target is Harry Hole (Fassbender), a full time drunk and lead detective for the Oslo police department’s major crimes unit. Of course, Hole is one of those black-out drunks who is so good at his job it earns him a ton of slack from his boss (Vibert) and his ex-wife, Rachel (Gainsbourg), and (maybe) their son. Anyoo, between waking up on park benches or passing out in back alleys, the highly morose Hole is roped into a missing person’s case by his new partner, the recently transferred Katrine Bratt (Ferguson), when a mother goes missing under dubious circumstances -- the most dubious being a snowman left in her yard. 

Katrine believes this new case might be tied to an old cold case, which Hole and the movie confirms via some really odd flashbacks to an earlier investigation, involving another blackout drunk detective named Rafto (Kilmer), who eventually committed suicide before solving the crime -- which is eventually revealed to be a murder staged as a suicide by the Snowman because he got too close to the truth.

And as Hole and Katrine run down several leads and suspects, receive more taunting notes from the killer, and unearth more victims, they piece together the killer is targeting women who do not live up to his standards of an ideal mother; women who either had abortions or had children out of wedlock. Hole also manages to piece together why this case is so personal to Katrine. And while she thinks this all connects to a prostitution ring run by a local doctor (Vibert) and a high-ranking politician (Simmons), and follows these notions to her doom, Hole discovers who the killer really is and discovers it all hits a little closer to home...

Based on one of Jo Nesbø’s novels about a self-destructive detective, Harry Hole, The Snowman was the seventh of eleven serialized adventures, whose resolution hinges on the discovery that all of the victims' children have different fathers from the men they believe to be their actual father. And apparently, this film adaptation had a steep hill to climb from the get-go due to people being hung-up on the sexual connotation of the lead character’s name. 

The name is derived from the word Hólar, which translates as "round and isolated hill" and can be traced back to the Viking Age. And it’s pronounced as two syllables, which makes it technically pronounced as Harry Holy, and why the filmmakers ignored this and went with Harry Hole as the better choice has me shrugging right now. And besides, the lead character’s name would prove to be the least of this film’s problems.

I had heard terrible things about this movie and the floundering box-office kind of backed all this backlash up, and yet I went -- specifically to see if it was as bad as people were saying. And was it really that bad? Well, The Snowman (2017) is by no means the worst film I've ever seen it is also not very good -- at all. And how a film with this much clout behind the camera and so much talent in front of it turned into this confusing morass of *yeesh* that was dumb is kinda hard to comprehend. According to the IMDB, Martin Scorsese was supposed to direct the film but backed out, remaining an executive producer. There were also rumors concerning Ridley Scott coming on board but the film eventually wound up in the hands of Tomas Alfredson, who directed the truly wonderful Scandinavian horror tale, Let the Right One In (2008), and the ambitious adaptation of John Le Carre's cold war epic, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011). 

And while he once again captures the surreal and ominous beauty of the Norwegian winter, we quickly discover rote police procedurals are not really in Alfredson’s wheelhouse. And what little good will the director actually earned is completely undone by the eventual demise and final fate of the killer as things come full circle. A true “booga-booga” moment that was so awful and stupid I can’t even even.

In front of the camera, Michael Fassbender and Rebecca Ferguson do their damndest to salvage a messy script and some chainsaw editing that results in some masssive leaps in plot logic. In fact, I would love to see Fassbender try it again with this character but in more comfortable genre hands. Also, someone give Ferguson some decent material to work with? Please and thank you. They are not helped by a script that is marred with oddities, twists, and underdeveloped characters that my best guess requires prior knowledge from the novels to make a lot of this make any sense. As a prime example of this, we have a character played by Chloë Sevigny, who is introduced, then killed off five seconds later with her head being chopped off, but then immediately returns as a ‘just so happens to be an identical twin’ to provide a pivotal piece of information and is then never heard from again. What the hell? Why? And that’s just one of myriad examples of interwoven plot threads that serve no purpose, go nowhere, or are left to die on the vine like the whole prostitution ring angle or the opening coda misfire because I'm still not sure if they wanted us to think the boy at the beginning was supposed to be Harry. Again, me, with the shrugging.

Worst of all is the flashbacks to the earlier investigation, whose initial transition to the past period was botched so badly I thought the detectives played by Val Kilmer and Toby Jones were just in another city trying to solve a concurrent crime committed by the Snowman that would eventually crossover with the Fassbender and Ferguson plot. But, nope. That was all in the past. I can’t quite remember when I finally sussed this out during the screening but I quickly realized it didn’t make that much of a difference. The film was already long lost by then.

And while the scenes with Kilmer were folded in so badly, they still proved fascinating to watch in a runaway train wreck sense. (I think it was the hair that had me thinking his character was a drunk and disillusioned Chris Knight all grown up.) And I also spent way too much time wondering if that was what he really looks like now or if some nose and jowls prosthesis were involved. And as to why his character wound up horrifically dubbed over is a 'behind the scenes' production tale that I really look forward to reading some day.

In an effort at damage control, Alfredson has stated the production of The Snowman was too rushed. Coming into the film late in the game, the director reckons at least fifteen percent of the script was never filmed because the location filming in Norway was shortened to move the production back to London, which would explain a lot. “We didn’t get the whole story,” said Alfredson. “And when we started cutting we discovered that a lot was missing. It's like when you're making a big jigsaw puzzle and a few pieces are missing so you don't see the whole picture." And this might be another film, judging by what's seen in the trailer that doesn't show up in the film, where extensive re-shoots might've hurt more than helped.

Thus and so, one can understand why the slapped and dashed The Snowman has earned itself such a lackluster reputation and vacant theater seats. And I fear as production stories start leaking out, they will prove far more interesting than the finished film. Again, I found it to be more flabbergasting than awful, leaving the film in that nebulous gray area of mediocrity, where it’s not really good enough to be memorable but not bad enough to be laughable, meaning there is nothing there to enjoy on any level. And that is nowhere to be, cinematically speaking.

The Snowman (2017) Working Title Films :: Perfect World Pictures :: Another Park Film :: Universal Pictures / EP: Tomas Alfredson, Liza Chasin, Amelia Granger, Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff / P: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Peter Gustafsson, Richard Hewitt, Alexander O'Neal, Robyn Slovo / LP: Tor Arne Øvrebø / D: Tomas Alfredson / W: Peter Straughan, Hossein Amini, Søren Sveistrup, Jo Nesbø (Novel) / C: Dion Beebe / E: Thelma Schoonmaker, Claire Simpson / M: Marco Beltrami / S: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Ronan Vibert, J.K. Simmons, Val Kilmer, Toby Jones

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