On July 18, 2017, cinema as we know it changed forever. This was the day Universal released the first poster for its then-upcoming crime thriller The Snowman. Oh, what a poster. This one-sheet consisted solely of a scribbled doodle of a snowman, who looks mildly annoyed, while above this drawing were the words “Mr. Police, you could have saved them, I gave you all the clues.” In an age of posters that are often just photoshopped images of actors’ faces, this bold way of selling a dark crime thriller was incredibly striking. Unfortunately, such a cute poster would be the high point of The Snowman.
While this poster would inspire unforgettable memes and social media moments for years to come, The Snowman as a film would end up being a great example of what happens when features with award-season ambitions go absolutely haywire.
The Pedigree of ‘The Snowman’
Based on a book of the same name by Jo Nesbø, The Snowman chronicles detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender and, yes, that’s the character’s name) as he battles his alcoholism and heartbreak while tracking down a killer who keeps using snowmen as his calling card for his murders. Long before the version of The Snowmen directed by Tomas Alfredson hit theaters, the source material had been eyeballed as prime fodder for a major motion picture. No less than Martin Scorsese was first attached to direct this motion picture, though Alfredson was far from a subpar replacement for the director’s chair. After all, this filmmaker was hot off his work helming Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the movie that garnered Gary Oldman his first Oscar nomination.
Once Alfredson was in place, a murderer’s row of actors was assembled for the various roles in the cast. Two-time Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender was selected to be Harry Hole, while Rebecca Ferguson would play The Snowman’s female lead as one of the first roles she shot after breaking out in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. A slew of beloved actors inhabited the most prominent supporting roles in the feature, including Toby Jones and J.K. Simmons, the latter of whom had a then-recent Oscar win for his unforgettable work in Whiplash. All the material these actors delivered would be handled in post-production by editor Thelma Schoonmaker (as well as editor Claire Simpson), the go-to editor of Scorsese’s films.
There was no shortage of esteemed talent breathing life into The Snowman. But it isn’t enough to have a lot of famous names in your production. If key ingredients in your film (like lackluster filmmaking or screenwriting) aren’t up to par, they’re bound to sink the whole production. Alas, this was the fate that awaited The Snowman.
The Shortcomings of ‘The Snowman’
You don’t need to be a detective as legendary as Harry Hole to be conscious of why The Snowman is such a misfire. For one thing, the feature doesn’t work as a propulsive crime thriller. With no characters we care about and no memorable sequences of gruesome mayhem, The Snowman fails to function as either a character piece or a piece of thrilling genre entertainment. For another, Harry Hole is a totally uninvolving creation. Alfredson finds no thoughtful ways to get us into the head of such a detached individual or even just make his aloof nature compelling. He’s just a broad rehash of a tortured boozy detective, an archetype audiences have seen countless times before.
The Snowman is also plagued by a strange narrative structure that includes lengthy detours into extraneous flashbacks centered on inspector Gert Rafto (Val Kilmer). The expansive scope of the narrative just doesn’t work in making the brutal actions of its main killer seem like they could happen to anyone. All it does is make it harder to latch onto any one character in this movie. Everything here is staggeringly miscalculated, right down to a key element in the climax involving Hole getting shot off-screen by The Snowman’s antagonist that’s filmed and edited like a comedy beat.
In this day and age, it’s common for directors to leap to the defense of critically derided movies with claims that the project was “made for the fans.” However, Alfredson went in a different direction. A few days before The Snowman opened, he was openly talking about why the film was so subpar and what informed the aforementioned flaws in the movie. The biggest culprit, per Alfredson, was a truncated pre-production caused by the sudden emergence of financing for the murder thriller and how the team never got enough time to film the entire script in Norway. It was only in the editing room that Alfredson realized just how much connective tissue was missing from The Snowman.
There were also tragic factors informing clumsy aspects of The Snowman’s filmmaking. Within the movie, the awkward shots of Val Kilmer’s Gert Rafto, which use every possible technique in the book to avoid lingering on close-ups of this character, register as just another lackluster element in a subpar movie. However, Kilmer’s struggles with throat cancer during shooting made it impossible for the actor to deliver dialogue on the film’s set. Thus, these awkward cuts and shot choices were implemented to make post-production dubbing of Rafto an easier experience.
‘The Snowman’ Was a Tormented Movie, In More Ways Than One
Needless to say, The Snowman was a tormented movie, a feature-length reminder of just how little control even the most acclaimed directors have over the art they create. No filmmaker is immune to outside influences impacting their process and the same can be said for every cast and crew member on a movie like The Snowman. However, endless movies throughout the year have endured unthinkable challenges in their respective journeys to the big screen and have managed to deliver masterpieces. Sometimes, obstacles and unforeseen tragedies can end up helping a movie and even adding previously incomprehensible layers of depth to a motion picture.
In the case of The Snowman, though, all these problems just compounded issues that seemed to have been ingrained into the project from the get-go (such as the lack of any discernible personality for Rebecca Ferguson’s Katrine Bratt). Perhaps there was no hope for this movie to be good, let alone as much of an Oscar darling as past Alfredson movies like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, even under the best of circumstances. But hey, at least The Snowman delivered a poster that can still make people giggle to this very day. That’s not something that happens with every movie. Surely that’s a feat worthy of a detective as esteemed as Harry Hole.