Universal Pictures

The Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø is a member of that peculiar subspecies of authors who specialize simultaneously in violent crime fiction and … children’s books. (James Patterson is another.) I have on more than one occasion worried that some small number of Nesbø’s kid-admirers might have accidentally picked up and perused a copy of his novel The Snowman, imagining it to be a goofy Yuletide romp.

It’s not.

I read The Snowman many years back and its memory continues to put a chill in my bones. A serial-killer novel set in Norway, it was by no means a great book. But it managed to cunningly blend the psychosexual depravity of peak Thomas Harris with the spirit-numbing winter vibe of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

The film adaptation is directed by Tomas Alfredson—Martin Scorsese was attached for a time, but dropped out to produce instead—and the Swedish director would seem to be an excellent choice. His Let the Right One In was a fine if overpraised film, and his Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, while admirable in many ways, failed specifically by being too cold, austere, and stylized—in a word, too Scandinavian. So who better to tackle Nesbø’s novel than Alfredson? A Teutonic two-fer, so to speak.

Alas, the movie is largely a mess, though the blame would seem to belong no more to Alfredson than to an abbreviated shooting schedule and a screenplay (by Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan, and Søren Sveistrup) that takes radical liberties in condensing the novel.

It all begins well enough. Following a creepy prologue in which a young boy discovers his mother sleeping with an illicit boyfriend, we meet our protagonist, the legendary Oslo homicide detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender). He is asleep on a bench in a snowy park, an empty bottle of vodka dangling from his fingers. When he arrives at work, it turns out that he has been alcoholically absent for a week, and he offers his superior a quarter-hearted excuse about a dead uncle before getting to the real point:

“I need a case to work on.”

“I apologize for Oslo’s low murder rate,” the superior answers drily. “Let’s stick with the uncle story.”

But Hole’s wish is granted almost instantaneously, in the form of a mysterious note addressed to him, written in a childish scrawl, and signed with a stick-figure snowman. Soon enough, Harry finds himself working with a young female officer, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), on the case of several women who’ve gone missing. All were married with children, and all were having affairs. Outside each one’s house was discovered a lumpily diabolical snowman facing in toward the bedroom.

It’s a genuinely unsettling premise, and for a time it keeps the film rolling. Alfredson takes full advantage of his wintry setting, in which any color other than blue or gray seems destined to be immediately extinguished. (Well, at least until the blood comes.) The bitter climate may not be the literal killer here, as it was in this summer’s Wind River, but it nonetheless seems the underlying motivator, working its will through human intermediaries. In this soul-deadening freeze, who wouldn’t seek solace in a bottle? Or in the physical warmth of a lover’s arms? Or in mass murder?

Alas, even the most extreme case of seasonal affective disorder is not enough to propel the film once it begins unraveling in a series of disjointed and often incomprehensible plot twists. Absurd coincidences, dubious motivations, Dark Family Secrets, a series of red herrings—it’s all in there, and compressed to the point that one can’t help but wonder what was left on the cutting-room floor.

Fassbender is entirely solid as Hole, but it’s still not clear that he’s cut out to be a conventional leading man rather than a fascinating purveyor of weirdness and intensity. (This is his second bid for a franchise, following last year’s Assassin’s Creed.) Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation) shows promise in the secondary role of Katrine.

A scarcely recognizable but utterly captivating Val Kilmer appears all too briefly in flashbacks as a cop—also brilliant, also alcoholic—who’d worked the same case years earlier. (Fashion a prequel around him, and I’ll be first in line for a ticket.) Charlotte Gainsbourg is charmingly relatable as Harry’s loving-but-frustrated ex. And there are sharp cameos by Chloë Sevigny, Toby Jones, and James D’Arcy, as well as a truly criminal misuse of J.K. Simmons.

Ultimately, The Snowman is that most frustrating of film types: You can picture the good movie that it might have been; it’s just not the movie that’s up on the screen. For a while, it sinks into your bones. And then it just sinks.

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