Harry Hole is Norway’s most famous detective, as created in a long-running series of best-selling books by author Jo Nesbø. Following on, very slowly, from the successful 2011 adaptation of Nesbo’s novel “Headhunters” (from director Morten Tyldum, who would go on to make “The Imitation Game” and “Passengers”), the first English-language film version of Nesbø’s work now arrives in the shape of “The Snowman.”
Michael Fassbender plays the maverick, alcoholic, chain-smoking Oslo cop, probably hoping, along with producers Working Title, that this could be the start of long-running franchise, something to get him out of the X-Men costume, at least. Hole (technically, it’s pronounced ho-leh) is on the trail of a serial killer who leaves figures of snowmen outside the houses from where he snatches his female victims, or where he slices them up. We’re not sure for a while if this is, indeed, a serial killer case, and we’ve certainly no idea how he makes the stupid snowmen.
It’s only when homicide department newcomer Katrine, played by Rebecca Ferguson, detects a recurring pattern in the disappearances of pregnant women that Hole comes out of his vodka-soaked fug to get interested in solving crimes once more. “I’m sorry about Oslo’s low murder rate,” concedes his long-suffering police chief, “but I need you to turn up for work.”
The scent of a hunt seems to energize Harry Hole, although it doesn’t help matters in his chaotic private life, which involves an art dealer ex-lover played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, her son Oleg, and her current husband, a slimy doctor called Matthias (Jonas Karlsson).
Meanwhile, a grinning — and therefore obviously evil — industrialist called Arve Stop (J.K. Simmons, using a sinister Nordic accent) is masterminding Oslo’s bid for the World Winter Games. In his downtime, this powerful tycoon enjoys taking photos of scared young women on his mobile phone and inviting them to his hotel room. The women are seemingly procured for him by a dodgy fertility doctor called Vetleser, played by David Dencik, the actor who was so creepy as Pus in “Top of the Lake: China Girl.”
What can it all mean? As is now customary in the Scandi noir genre, all is not white amid the driven snows of the Norwegian winters. Blood soaks through, crows peck at the ice, and long-buried secrets emerge.
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Katrine and her newly-issued but incredibly clunky-looking EviSync machine go about their data-recording detective business; the fact that we learn this gizmo needs fingerprint ID to function will obviously come back with grisly consequences later on. The Snowman, you see, is not averse to incorporating real body parts in his snow sculpture work.
A strong-on-paper cast includes appearances from Scandi noir queen herself, Sofia Helin (star of the original “The Bridge”), as well as Chloe Sevigny, Toby Jones, Anne Reid and a ridiculous-looking Val Kilmer whose face is so frozen, he can barely speak. (Must be very chilly in Norway this time of year.)
This should have been a success. The screenwriters include Oscar nominees Peter Straughan (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) and Hossein Amini (“Drive”); Martin Scorsese exec produces; Dion Beebe takes on photography duties and award-winning Maria Djurkovic (“A Bigger Splash”) goes to town with the Ikea-catalogue production design. Director Tomas Alfredson and his producers strain for a magic blend of his stylish ensemble noir “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and his macabre Swedish vampire fable “Let The Right One In.” But you can hear the ice crack under the weight of all that expectation.
For all his red-eyed, hangover acting, Fassbender cannot make his detective interesting; Hole is about the right name for this characterless performance. Even the dependable Ferguson looks lost in the snowdrifts of the script. All around them, sub-plots, tangents and flashbacks feel casually cobbled together, a smorgasbord where all the herrings are red and the krispbread clichés gone stale.
When you’re playing it casual with sexual assault, female trafficking, dismemberment, and institutional corruption, it quickly becomes an exercise in bad judgement and bad taste. A hurriedly assembled final edit looks as messy as the serial killer’s crime scenes, with expository, over-dubbed dialogue needed to float over plot holes of logic, such as: “All the helicopters are grounded because of the bad weather,” or “But you can’t get here because you’re at a stupid, bloody conference.”
In a film that revels in the gruesome nature of its deaths and the impenetrable mysteries of murder, the climactic showdown is so unimaginative it should be sent to the bottom of the screenwriting class and made to repeat the year.
The glaring inadequacies of “The Snowman” are the only things shocking about it. Harry Hole’s film career could not have gotten off to a more inauspicious start. Its future is certainly on thin ice now, and you don’t need Saga Noren, Lisbeth Salander or even Kurt Wallander to work that one out.