Friday, October 20, 2017

In Theaters: THE SNOWMAN (2017)

(US/UK/Sweden - 2017)

Directed by Tomas Alfredson. Written by Peter Straughan, Hossein Amini and Soren Sviestrup. Cast: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, J.K. Simmons, Val Kilmer, Jonas Karlsson, Chloe Sevigny, Toby Jones, James D'Arcy, David Dencik, Ronan Vibert, Genevieve O'Reilly, Jacob Oftebro, Adrian Dunbar, Michael Yates, Jamie Clayton, Peter Dalle, Sofia Helin, Leonard Heinemann. (R, 120 mins)

THE SNOWMAN is the first big-screen adaptation of Norwegian mystery writer Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole series. Though I believe the intended pronunciation is "Hol-uh," the fact that they didn't take into consideration that the name "Harry Hole" is only going to induce Beavis & Butthead snickers for English-speaking and American audiences, especially since they just say "Hole" throughout the movie (I've read two of Nesbo's Hole novels, and it's easy to overlook on the page) is a good indication that this was never going to work. Nesbo's books--his non-Hole novel Headhunters was turned into a film in 2011--were part of the post-Stieg Larsson/Girl with the Dragon Tattoo explosion that launched the Scandinavian mystery subgenre into the literary mainstream (see also Henning Mankell's Wallander novels, adapted for television with Kenneth Branagh in the title role, and Jussi Adler-Olsen's Department Q series, which was turned into a movie trilogy) and generated renewed interest in older works by the influential Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo, and others. THE SNOWMAN is a bit fashionably late to the party as far as movie adaptations of Scandinavian noir go, and it was originally conceived several years ago with Martin Scorsese planning to direct. Scorsese eventually left the project in 2013 as it was put in turnaround but remains credited as a producer, having passed it on to Tomas Alfredson to direct when it was given the green light again in late 2015. Alfredson has two classics to his credit--2008's LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and 2011's TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY--but THE SNOWMAN looks like a film that's been so mangled in post-production that everyone involved simply walked away and gave up trying to fix it. After the film opened to disastrous reviews in Europe, Alfredson attempted to do some damage control in the days prior to the US release, saying that the film was rushed into production with little planning, and when it came time to hit the editing room, he found that he only had, by his own admission, "85%" of the footage he needed, forcing him to use voiceovers and restructure character arcs in an attempt to put everything together. The Band-Aids precariously holding THE SNOWMAN together are all too obvious, starting with several name actors having nothing to do with anything, at least two critical subplots dropped without explanation, that there's a plethora of credits for "additional photography" and a team of editors (including Scorsese's legendary secret weapon and right hand Thelma Schoonmaker), and the fact that virtually none of the footage, dialogue, or implied plot developments in the trailer are actually in the movie. If you're enough of a film nerd, you can tell when a movie has had a troubled production and the end result is barely hanging together. And if you're familiar at all with film editing, you know that if Thelma Schoonmaker can't make it work, then it just wasn't meant to be.

That said, it's not terrible. It's by no means "good," but it's hardly the total dumpster fire that its chaotic backstory and Alfredson's excuses would indicate. It looks good, there's some effective atmosphere and striking location work in Norway, and I'm a sucker for cold, snowy, depressing mysteries. As the glum, alcoholic Hole, Michael Fassbender keeps the story interesting even as it's falling apart at the seams. In relatively crime-free Oslo, a serial killer is decapitating single mothers and putting their severed heads on snowmen (the mechanism used is similar to that seen in Dario Argento's 1993 film TRAUMA). He also seems to be stalking cold-case detective Hole, sending him a taunting note calling him "Mister Police." Hole has nothing to do ("I'm sorry about Oslo's extremely low murder rate," his boss tells him) and can go on weeklong benders with no none really noticing he's gone, so he teams with younger investigator Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), who seems hellbent on tying wealthy Oslo politician and businessman Arve Stop (J.K. Simmons) and fertility doctor Idvar Vetlesen (David Dencik, a fixture in Scandinavian mystery adaptations) to the murders. Hole also digs into secret files Katrine has stashed away about a similar string of killings nine years earlier in Bergen, which were investigated by corrupt detective Gert Rafto (Val Kilmer). Hole's obsession with cracking the case puts a strain on his relationship with Oleg (Michael Yates), the teenage son of his ex-girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Hole is still on good terms with Rakel, even though she's involved with shrink Matthias Lund-Helgesen (Jonas Karlsson), but Hole sticks around because Oleg has always viewed him as a father figure and, unbeknownst to the boy, Hole is his biological father (not a spoiler--it's divulged very early).

There's a lot of story in THE SNOWMAN, and I didn't even mention Chloe Sevigny playing dual roles and getting about five minutes of screen time total before disappearing from the movie. The whole subplot about sleazy Stop trying to get the Olympic Games to Oslo ends up being a time-wasting, dead-end red herring that goes nowhere, along with pervy Vetlesen--who paints his toenails--acquiring young girls for him (are they pimps? Human traffickers? Who knows?). The killer's identity is easy to figure out, especially with a flashback to a young boy witnessing the drowning of his mother twenty-odd years ago, which a) must mean something, and b) gives you a good idea of what age that kid would now be, and Rakel and Oleg serve no purpose whatsoever other than being put in jeopardy. The motivations of Katrine and her drive to continue Rafto's work are obvious long before Hole figures it out by visiting a cabin that somehow hasn't been touched in nine years, and the editing is so bad at times that you'll wonder why Schoonmaker even left her name on it (how can the killer be throwing a snowball at an intended victim as she walks to her car and at the same time be in the car parked right behind her when she gets in hers?). The plot requires characters to be idiots in order to move it forward (the killer leaves cigarette butts all over the crime scenes, yet no one runs a DNA test on any of them), and the film's version of high-tech is laughable, as evidenced by the "EviSync," a cumbersome, clunky gadget that Katrine totes around that looks like an oversized iPad prototype from 1988.

But the biggest point of discussion about THE SNOWMAN is bound to be the bizarre appearance of Kilmer, in his first role in a major movie in years. For the last several years, Kilmer's health has been the subject of rumors until he finally admitted earlier this year that he'd been battling some form of tongue or throat cancer. Kilmer's Gert Rafto is only seen fleetingly in a handful of flashbacks. The veteran actor looks gaunt and visibly ill, almost unrecognizable, and when he opens his mouth, it's instantly obvious that he's been dubbed over by a voice that sounds absolutely nothing at all like his own. There's also a near-GODZILLA effect as the words barely match his lip movements--probably a sign of post-production rewrites--and Alfredson bends over backward to keep Kilmer's face offscreen while his character is talking. There's even scenes where people are talking to him and he awkwardly says nothing in return. It's a distraction even if you're aware of Kilmer's health problems (back in the '60s until his death in 1973, throat cancer robbed beloved actor Jack Hawkins of his voice, requiring him to be dubbed in everything, but at least effort was made to sound like him). You're taken out of the movie every time he's onscreen. Kilmer's dubbed voice couldn't be any more jarring if it was done by Gilbert Gottfried. It sounds like the kind of deep-voice distortion given to a silhouetted whistleblower in a 60 MINUTES interview. Sure, maybe he needed the work and has a friend at Universal who wanted to do him a solid, but even if he was unable to speak or if his words were garbled post-cancer, they couldn't find anyone who sounded even remotely like Val Kilmer to dub his dialogue and not completely sabotage his performance?

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