In “The Snowman,” a wretched waste of time and talent from the Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”), two detectives track a serial killer who likes to hack up women’s bodies and then scatter the pieces all over: a head here, a limb there. The movie, perhaps subscribing to the fallacy of imitative form, adopts this dispersal method as a narrative strategy: a scene here, a flashback there, chunks of exposition strewn about like severed fingers. You could try piecing it all together, but really, what would be the point? Dead is dead.
The task of tracking down the killer falls to an Oslo police detective named Harry Hole, played by Michael Fassbender, who looks about as excited as anyone would be playing a character named Harry Hole. A chain-smoking, hard-drinking sleuth known for his unorthodox methods, Hole is the protagonist of a bestselling series of crime novels by the Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø, of which “The Snowman” is the seventh installment but the first to be adapted to the big screen. It might also be the last, at least with this particular talent configuration.
Alfredson has already spoken publicly about a rushed production schedule that kept a significant portion of the script (written by Peter Straughan, Hossein Amini and Søren Sveistrup) from even being filmed. That goes some distance toward explaining how a gifted director (he also helmed 2011’s masterful “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) could have marshaled such a stellar ensemble, including Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Toby Jones, enlisted gifted collaborators like the cinematographer Dion Beebe, and still managed to emerge with one of the more disturbingly inept motion pictures released by a major studio this year.
The setting is Norway, though it might make more sense to call it “Noway,” a mythic land of slush and snow populated almost exclusively by variably accented English speakers. J.K. Simmons tries on a beard and a weird voice as a smarmy Oslo politician, while Chloë Sevigny, rightly confirming that you can never have too much Chloë Sevigny, plays identical twin sisters. Val Kilmer is nearly unrecognizable as a boozy, self-destructive older cop; I was too busy trying to decipher the character’s atrociously looped dialogue to realize that his scenes were supposed to be set in the ’80s.
Presumably the unfilmed material would have clarified the significance of some fatally uninteresting municipal intrigue.
But I’m getting ahead of (or perhaps behind) myself.
When Hole isn’t drinking himself into a face-down-in-the-snow stupor, he has an amiable relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Rakel (Gainsbourg), and a particularly close one with her teenage son, Oleg (Michael Yates), whom he still regards with stepfatherly affection. But he’s soon distracted from these and other emotional concerns by a madman who’s been busy abducting women across the city, leaving a small snowman behind at every crime scene. The murderer also sends ominous, taunting messages to Hole, complete with childlike snowman drawing; he’s like the Zodiac killer with a Frosty fetish.
Before long Hole joins forces with an impetuous junior detective named Katrine Bratt (Ferguson), steering the plot into a thicket of complications as dense and impenetrable as the fog that settles on the nearby mountaintops. Given how skillfully Alfredson navigated the intricate cloak-and-dagger world of John le Carré in “Tinker Tailor,” it’s startling to see what a scattershot mess has been made of Nesbø’s rather more elementary procedural. Imagine acing differential calculus and then failing geometry.
Presumably the unfilmed material would have clarified the significance of some fatally uninteresting municipal intrigue involving Oslo’s bid for an Olympics-style tournament. It almost certainly would have made for an easier salvage job for the editors, Claire Simpson and Thelma Schoonmaker, the latter known for her longtime collaboration with Martin Scorsese (who is credited as an executive producer here).
You can understand the industry’s eagerness to cash in on the Nordic crime-fiction craze that brought us “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Killing” and their various literary and screen incarnations. There’s probably a good movie or several buried in the frigid wilds of Nesbø’s fiction, and with more time and cultural nuance and fewer cooks in the kitchen, it might well be realized. Watching this bungled slopsicle of a movie, it’s hard not to conclude that somebody let the wrong one in.
Rating: R, for grisly images, violence, some language, sexuality and brief nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Playing: In general release