A compelling, sprawlingly designed serial-killer thriller on the surface and something deeper down below, "The Snowman" defies most mainstream genre trappings in often thrillingly unpredictable ways. The story unfolds at its own intoxicating pace and tempo, unconcerned with cut-and-dry plotting as it drifts off on enigmatic tangents which ultimately and sometimes ingeniously collide. The film, based on the bestselling novel by Jo Nesbø and adapted for the screen by Peter Straughan (2015's "Our Brand Is Crisis
"), Hossein Amini (2011's "Drive
"), and Søren Sveistrup, is frequently as cold as its snowswept Norway surroundings, all the better to broadside the viewer when human intimacy rears its head and unanticipated shades are revealed about its characters and their troubled pasts. If director Tomas Alfredson (2008's "Let the Right One In
") doesn't always fully acknowledge the gravity of certain fateful developments, his cinematic command is never in doubt.
Over the last six years, multiple women have either gone missing or been brutally slain in and around the city of Oslo. New-to-town detective Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) suspects a linkthey all appear to be mothers, for one, they were all abducted during a snowstorm, and a snowman was found at the scene of each crime. As she and her troubled partner, the unfortunately named Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender), edge closer to the truth, they begin to suspect shady activity within the city's elite. And, after Harry receives a portentous note prior to the latest abduction, it becomes all too clear the killer is well aware of who he is and likely tracking the investigation.
Destined to be misunderstood and written off upon initial release but hopefully headed toward an eventual, richly deserved reappraisal, "The Snowman" is a complex, sumptuously frosty psychological drama about the inextricable bond between parents and children, and the potential lingering emotional traumas threatening both sides when the unwritten promises of said relationships fail to be met. This thematic thread is so enveloping and so pivotal to the very foundation of virtually every moment it fast becomes the film's heartbeat. From Harry, whose desire to remain in the life of ex-wife Rakel's (Charlotte Gainsbourg) fatherless teenage son Oleg (Michael Yates) is constantly undercut by his instability, to Katrine, whose devotion to her own dad weighs heavily on her present-day actions, to Filip Becker (James D'Arcy), who struggles to be there for young daughter Josephine (Jeté Laurence) when their wife and mother vanishes, to the young boy (Leonard Heinemann) in the haunting prologue who is rebuked by an unstable father figure (Peter Dalle) and watches his mother (Sofia Helin) commit suicide within moments of each other, the lonely figures running throughout "The Snowman" are damaged, striving for clarity in an unfair world and affixed as if by the killer's razor wire to their innate yearnings for love and acceptance.
Director Tomas Alfredson exhibits provocative restraint in his handling of a vicious premise, meticulously choosing what to show while leaving the horrors of what happens off-screen to percolate in one's imagination. He also brings a suggestive, free-floating sensibility to his narrative, taking the time to breathe in his exotic locations and the world in which his characters reside. The film is a visual feast, the kind where any image could be framed and hung on a wall. With the exception of some muddled vocal dubbing of Val Kilmer (2010's "MacGruber
"), appearing in flashbacks as the first detective on the trail of the killer, tech credits are ace, the fervent inspiration of artists such as cinematographer Dion Beebe (2014's "Into the Woods
") and composer Marco Beltrami (2017's "Logan
") leaping off the screen. As the camera sweeps across desolate wintry vistas, across sidewinding bridges, and through foreboding, fantastical streets both rural and cosmopolitan, the picture immerses the viewer in its deviously gorgeous coils. Purely great shots abound, but one set in a darkened hotel room as snow falls heavily outside a window bordered with pine-tree carvings is particularly eye-catching, a sublime melding of photography, art direction and production design. Beltrami's score is edgy and unnervingly dreamlike, at times reminding in the best way of his work on 1996's "Scream
The cast is tremendous down to the smallest of parts, but it is Michael Fassbender's (2017's "Alien: Covenant
") broken-down Detective Harry Hole, Rebecca Ferguson's (2017's "Life
") determined Katrine Bratt, and Charlotte Gainsbourg's (2011's "Melancholia
") Rakel, torn between the new life she's built for herself and the old one she shared with Harry, who engrossingly lead the ensemble. Also worth notice: a terrific Chloë Sevigny (2015's "#Horror
"), whose stirring roles as twin sisters Sylvia and Ane linger long after she's exited the scene, and James D'Arcy (2017's "Dunkirk
"), emanating regret and devotion as a suddenly widowed father, Filip, refusing to let a tough truth about his family get in the way of caring for daughter Josephine.
Like the intertwined statues captured at Vigeland Sculpture Park during its tantalizing opening credits sequence, "The Snowman" delves into characters who are destined to forever be fused, for better or worse, with the familial attachments which have molded them into the people they have become. Most are flawed but inherently good, vulnerable works in progress who stand as counterpoint to a fallen soul whose lingering hang-ups have been taken to the harrowing, homicidal extreme. If not every plot point holds up to equal pinpoint scrutiny, why must it? Real life is messy like this, motivations frequently existing in gray areas and best-laid plans culminating in sometimes blunt, unfair anticlimaxes. The picture is riveting and cohesive even in its unanswered questions and spatial wanderings, all the better to bring appreciable scope and a darkly fanciful folklorist aura to its bone-chilling Nordic landscape. Even in its imperfections, "The Snowman" is unusual, fascinating, and warranting of closer consideration, a layered thriller with aesthetic beauty to spare and forlorn wisdom into both the mysteries and universalities of the human condition.