Movie Review: Michael Fassbender’s ‘Snowman’ melts into abominable mess

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'The Snowman' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — He directed the Swedish horror masterpiece “Let the Right One In” (2008).

Now, filmmaker Tomas Alfredson trudges back into the snow for the thriller “The Snowman.”

Based on the 2007 novel by Jo Nesbø, Detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) investigates a missing woman whose scarf is found on a snowman in Oslo. He quickly realizes that it’s the calling card of a serial killer, who likes to decorate snowmen with grisly pieces of his victims.

When done right, this genre is one of cinema’s best, bringing us Fritz Lang’s “M” (1931), Alfred Hitchcock’s “Frenzy” (1972), Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), David Fincher’s “Se7en” (1995) and “Zodiac” (2007), Niels Arden Oplev’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2009) and Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” (2013). Yours Truly loves nothing more than a well-crafted serial crime thriller, but this odd one doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell.

“The Snowman” melts under a sluggish pace, complex plot and unintended predictability. That’s not a knock on screenwriters Peter Straughan (“Frank”), Hossein Amini (“Drive”) and Søren Sveistrup (“The Killing”), whose stellar track record precedes them. Alfredson even insists he wasn’t allowed to shoot 10 to 15 percent of the script. Whatever the reason, the premise of Jack Frost meets Jack the Ripper works far better in the trailer than the movie.

If you pay attention, you’ll guess the killer’s identity. If not, the pacing may lull you to sleep, leaving a story so complicated that you’ll never catch up. Convoluted plot mechanics can still work under the right conditions (i.e. “The Big Sleep”), but here the atmosphere is an albatross with bloody snow that lacks the levity of “Fargo” (1996). In 2017 terms, “Wind River” is more engrossing, “Get Out” is more symbolic and “It” proves horror doesn’t have to be humorless.

Still, the script’s biggest sin is the unnecessary framing device that opens the movie, showing the killer’s backstory of painful childhood memories. It’s a dive into the “Citizen Kane” snow globe but with a deadlier Rosebud. Not only does it feel over-the-top with its amateur child acting, there’s no need for it. This genre works better when we’re dropped into the killing spree and have to piece together the motives. Imagine if we saw Buffalo Bill’s childhood at the opening of “The Silence of the Lambs?” It would’ve killed the movie, which it sadly does here.

(We won’t even go into the protagonist’s lame name. Is “Harry Hole” supposed to be a joke?)

Oh well, at least the cast is deep with Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg and J.K. Simmons. Hats off to casting director Jina Jay, who previously landed Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch in Alfredson’s fine “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011).

Watching the opening credits, your expectations will be set high with producer Martin Scorsese (“Goodfellas”), editor Thelma Schoonmaker (“Raging Bull”), cinematographer Dion Beebe (“Memoirs of a Geisha”) and composer Marco Beltrami (“The Hurt Locker”). These master craftsmen sculpt a film that looks great but can’t overcome its inherent story flaws.

After it’s done, you’ll remember the imagery more than the story: (a) the villain’s weapon, which rivals Javier Bardem’s pneumatic gun in “No Country for Old Men” (2007), and (b) the ominously-decorated snowmen, which are creatively creepy. These elements had all the potential for a genre classic; it’s a shame that they are played for schlock rather than nuance.

My advice — skip “The Snowman” and rewatch Alfredson’s masterful vampire flick “Let the Right One In” (2008), which remains arguably the best horror flick of the last 10 years.

Even great filmmakers are allowed a few frosty duds.

Thumpity, thump, thump.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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