Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Snowman: Deep Freeze

Michael Fassbender as Harry Hole in The Snowman

The images in The Snowman, Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of one of the Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole thrillers, are alternately crystalline and misted over. Alfredson, too, is Scandinavian (he was born in Stockholm), and his movie, set in what feels like endless winter, gets the feel of a country embedded in deep freeze. In visual terms the film is about winter as a state of mind, as an objective correlative for psyches that have been chilled by bitter experience, as a landscape for the dead. The snowmen that the serial killer being stalked by Hole (Michael Fassbender) and his young partner Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) leaves as signposts to murder have sinister, hollowed-out faces and their clumsy stick arms suggest primitive atrocities. I can’t think of another movie that does more lyrically with the ghostliness of the season. Beneath the snowfall, Alfredson and his cinematographer Dion Beebe suggest, are frozen hearts and damaged souls who haunt the country like the undead.

The Snowman received reviews bad enough to kill it at the box office; I saw it on a Saturday night, the day after it had opened nationwide, and there were maybe eight people in the theatre. And Alfredson himself has denounced it, protesting that when he took up the project after Martin Scorsese dropped it he was given an abridged production schedule and couldn’t shoot the whole script. (Peter Straughan, Hossein Amini and Søren Sveistrup are listed as co-screenwriters.) Presumably that accounts for the picture’s jagged narrative rhythms despite the collaboration of two editors, Claire Simpson and the wizardly veteran Thelma Schnoonmaker (Scorsese’s contribution to the project). Some sequences linger so long that the movie appears to be sleepwalking; other times the plot comes at you in rushed, confused segments. Some scenes involving Val Kilmer in an incomprehensible performance (and a bizarre haircut that makes him look like he stepped out of a Hammer horror film) are so truncated that you don’t know what the hell is going on, and it takes a while for us to register that they’re a flashback. I assume that Alfredson was going for a creeping dreamy style that he couldn’t sustain because he didn’t have all the footage he needed, and that the movie only feels too slow in spots by comparison with the chaotic rush of plot points. When the movie isn’t baffling you – when you can focus on the imagery – it’s often impressive, clearly the work of a gifted director. (Alfredson’s previous films are Let the Right One In and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.) It’s certainly not the unmitigated disaster that it’s being portrayed as; among psychological thrillers I’d take it over, say, The Girl on the Train. That it’s a failure despite the obvious talent of the filmmaker makes it frustrating, but despite what you’ve heard it isn’t risible or embarrassing.

The biggest problem isn’t that Alfredson couldn’t complete the shoot, and it isn’t that the screenwriters have altered Nesbø’s plot. Actually they didn’t change all that much. The main difference is that a major character who survives the novel is killed off in the film; also Hole, who has stopped drinking when the book begins, is presented in the movie, as he must be in other entries in the series, as sunk in an alcoholic morass. Fans of the novelist are pissed off by the changes, of course. (Just ask Philip Kaufman what the dangers are of altering the story line of a popular novel: his 1993 Rising Sun, based on a Michael Crichton thriller, switched the identity of the murderer and made the narrative complex and playfully cross-cultural – and was damned for not treating the source as sacred and condemned as racist. The book is; the movie isn’t.) The problem is that there aren’t enough changes. The novel is icy, clinical and humorless and it’s written – as far as one can tell from the translation – in a style that is both overly verbose and monochromatic. All that holds you is the (rather baroque) plot. The serial killer was blighted as a child by his parents’ miserable marriage and his mother’s infidelity; in the movie the set-up is a little different but the emotions that set him off – his victims are young wives with children – are the same (helplessness, anger and moral outrage arising from a sense of abandonment). You can see the screenwriters working to devise a more compelling reason for the child’s growing up to become a sociopathic killer, but the opening sequence of the movie isn’t convincing either; it just feels like a plot device. And the climax, where Harry has to rescue loved ones from the killer’s clutches, is clumsy, as if Alfredson didn’t really believe in it.

Ferguson looks like she could be interesting as Katrine but her part, like other elements in the movie, is insufficiently developed. Alfredson’s version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy was an embarrassment of acting riches, but the only supporting players who get much of a chance to show what they can do in The Snowman are the sensuous, instinctual Charlotte Gainsbourg as Harry’s ex, Jonas Karlsson as her indulgent current lover and J.K. Simmons in an amusing near-cameo as a randy politician thrilled with the joys of the chase – the sort of role Rip Torn used to specialize in. As for Fassbender, he’s back in his old glum, moody mode, which put me off in movies like Hunger and Shame. He’s not really an actor you want to see explore the dark side; his impulse is to bury the showmanship that enhances his work in A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre and the X-Men pictures. All you’re left with here is technique wedded to inexpressiveness. Where’s the benefit in that?

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment