Tuesday, 24 October 2017

The Snowman (2017) - Movie Review

While the reigning school of auteur theory may argue against this, directors don’t always have complete control over their work. Sometimes, it’s down to studio interference like with Walking With Dinosaurs; sometimes, it’s down to a rotating list of creatives attached to a single film that can lead to a major case of too many cooks in the kitchen like with Jane Got A Gun; and sometimes, it’s down to just poor planning. A lot of work goes into every single film I have covered so far and will ever cover on this blog; even the worst pieces of crap I’ve talked about involved dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people working together. There’s all sorts of room for error in that kind of situation, from stunt work that goes hideously wrong to constant re-writes in the middle of production that put the story out of whack.
Then there’s what went into today’s film, which is objectively unfinished. I feel somewhat bad for even writing about this in the first place, but as I’ll get into, the production issues aren’t nearly enough to excuse how… baffling this turned out.

The plot: Detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender), while investigating a disappearance, finds evidence of the workings of a serial killer. Police recruit Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson) helps him on the case. Arve Støp (J. K. Simmons) is campaigning for Norway to host the Winter Games. Detective Gert (Val Kilmer) drunkenly stumbles around in the past. If this sounds disjointed, that’s only because it is.

The cast is full of indie darlings, along with a couple outliers from past and present mainstream cinema, and they’re all… fine, I guess. It’s a bit distracting seeing Norway populated entirely by English speakers with thick British accents, but as I’ll get into later, that is a bit of a minor complaint. Fassbender is rather disappointing, making out his alcoholic detective to be one of the most lifeless and boring characters he’s played yet, not helped by the lack of actual deduction on his character’s part. Ferguson is much the same, letting down her potentially interesting character through a haze of sterility and sporadic cheek.
Charlotte Gainsbourg makes a welcome change from being Lars Von Trier’s avatar for everything wrong with them women today, but aside from sharing the lifelessness of most of the rest of the cast, she’s also only a character by proxy to Harry, something embodied by one of the most pointless humping scenes I’ve watched all year. Michael Yates as Oleg is very obviously written as a child who talks exactly like the adults, and his delivery as is stinted as you would expect from that.

J. K. Simmons is easily the most distracting with his attempt at a British accent, mainly because it’s more than clear that it’s not natural for his voice, and had his subplot had any real point to it, he could have been a decent addition. Toby Jones barely does anything, Chloë Sevigny plays twin sisters, one of whom has to help solve the other’s murder because apparently I’m watching Sin City, and Val Kilmer… wow. He looks like he’s auditioning for The Machinist, he stumbles through the few scenes he has, he is painfully dubbed over all the time because I’m guessing his own attempt at a British accent was just that bad, and his ultimate fate is cut short by CGI so bad that I laughed out loud in the cinema. We’re not even past the cast rundown and already this is something real special.

I honestly don’t have a high an opinion of director Tomas Alfredson, particularly his more mainstream work (AKA the films of his I’ve actually seen so far). As much as Let The Right One In was a sign of good things to come for vampire stories in film and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a star-studded bit of true espionage, neither film really gripped me all that much. Hell, I actively remember falling asleep while watching Tinker; only three films to date have had that effect on me and none of them are particularly good.
Still, credit where it’s due in that Alfredson and cinematographer Dion Beebe definitely make the film have a distinct feel to it. Alfredson is at his best when working with cold, snow and ice in particular, and using the weather to create a thematic mood; this is no exception. The sterile, almost blinding whiteness of the snow next to the rather grim ‘story details’ creates a good contrast, and his knack for framing gives a lot of scenes an uncomfortable voyeuristic tone, something that plays nicely into the film’s attempts at message. Of course, this leads to the other effect this style usually results in: It’s like staring at figurative snow on an old TV screen. After a while, the literal chilling effect of the visuals fades out and all that’s left is a lot of negative space with not a lot happening to fill in the gaps.

This rather perfectionist approach to the look of the film leads me rather nicely to what most audiences and even Alfredson himself have deemed the big glaring flaw of this film: What is the story even about? He purportedly ran out of time to shoot the entirety of the script and dear lord, does it look like that is the case. From the very opening scene, it becomes clear that not that much of the film is going to connect properly with itself, resulting in a vast majority of the film being comprised of moments that might have a point but none that is immediately obvious. Or obvious at all. This isn’t even a case of “oh, the imagery and visuals are supposed to explain the story”; most of the film goes completely unexplained. Not that there’s no point to any of it; just that no point is even given for it.
It’s a barrage of atonal gibberish, to put it bluntly: A murder mystery that is barely a mystery both in tone and in progression, the subplot about Arve’s bid for Norway to host the We’re-Not-Allowed-To-Call-This-The-Winter-Olympics Winter Games, Kilmer’s previous detective whose own efforts factor in none at all, not to mention the line from all of the marketing about leaving all the clues how Harry “could have saved her” that is 100% absent from the final product; none of this fits. More to the point, not only does barely anything here feel fleshed out enough to even be on-screen, it’s cut together so badly that pretty much every scene transition is an exercise in complete mood whiplash. Decapitated head on a snowman (which gets shown three times in the space of ten minutes, with severely diminishing returns each time), cut to brightly-lit party hosted by Simmons. Unless the song Popcorn is inherently terrifying for you, it’s hard to get invested in what this film seems to think is thrilling.

And yet, even in something this insanely fractured, there might be a nugget of meaning to tie it all together. Along with establishing the atonal nature of the rest of the film, the opening scene also sets up something rather prominent: The actions of men, specifically fathers. Throughout the film, we see characters excusing themselves to their kids by saying that the father has to go away on business, deal with other matters, or otherwise be absent for a time. The actions of the main characters, particularly Harry, Gert and who we eventually discover is the murderer, are all informed either by how their fathers acted towards them or in how they interact with their own children. To add to this, we have J. K. Simmons taking pictures of women with their tops off… like I said, his subplot could have worked if there was any real endgame to it. Between him and his co-conspirator, they treat women as objects; things to be seen and not heard, to be collected.
All of this tied together gives a message of toxic masculinity and the role that men play within families, particularly when they’re not involved in their families in the first place through neglect. Honestly, when it comes to rather dull films trying to make a point like this, I’m more willing to buy it here than with something like Nocturnal Animals. However, here’s the problem with even that much praise: With how this film is presented, why should I care about any of this? Why should I care about the killer being captured, when the film is so lacking in tension that it seems even it doesn’t care about the answer? Why should I want to see the killer served justice, when the final confrontation between it and Harry ends on an incredibly awful anti-climax where the killer basically does itself in? Why am I bothering with subtextual analysis, when not even the text is worth reading?

All in all, this is an absolute mess. Tomas Alfredson may have his reasons for why it all turned out this way, but quite frankly, I don’t even think this film would have been all that great even if he had filmed all that he planned to. The acting ranges from passable to outright confusing, the visuals show that setting up the perfect shot doesn’t mean as much when you can’t get all of them done in the first place, the attempts at thrills and intrigue are flat and whatever spooky imagery we get is on screen for far longer than it needs to, and the writing is all over the bloody place. So many subplots that serve no real purpose, so many scenes that don’t affect anything else we’re shown, and so many ideas for true suspense that went unheeded. Rarely do I walk out of a cinema thinking that I legit had better ideas for the film than the actual filmmakers, but that’s how slapdash this ultimately is. This is Fifty Shades Darker levels of bad filmmaking for this year, and I don’t make that comparison lightly.

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