The Snowman review – Michael Fassbender plays it cool in watchable Jo Nesbø thriller | Peter Bradshaw's film of the week

The bestseller about a maverick cop on the trail of a serial killer reaches the big screen in a gruesome but watchable adaptation from Tomas Alfredson

Of course it is a letdown to discover that Michael Fassbender is not actually playing the lead in Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman and that he is not, in the words of the song, walking in the air, wearing a white costume and carrot nose, his feet softly pedalling in the magically Christmassy night sky, and his calloused hand in that of a child. In fact, the film he’s in ironically sports with precisely these images of childhood innocence. Fassbender is playing a serial-killer-catching cop in a chilly Scandi procedural, on the trail of a murderer calling himself the Snowman. The officer himself has the borderline ridiculous name of Harry Hole. He is grizzled, alcoholic, rulebook-shredding.

Screenwriters Peter Straughan and Hossein Amini have adapted Jo Nesbø’s bestselling 2007 crime novel, and the director is Tomas Alfredson, who with production designer Maria Djurkovic creates that familiar, shopworn, down-at-heel and often shabby world recognisable from his earlier movies such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and his modern vampire classic, Let the Right One In (2008), though here it is always refreshed and made new by the ever-present sparkling snow.

It’s a serviceable, watchable thriller, with very gruesome images, coagulating around psychopathologies of father obsession and son obsession, and set in the freezing cities of Oslo and Bergen, locations that afford sweeping cityscape views that are made to look cosmopolitan and densely populated yet also weirdly remote, islanded and forbidding. The story has its own pulse that keeps it moving along, despite a frankly eccentric flashback detour concerning another hard-drinking unconventional cop, oddly portrayed by Val Kilmer who appears not to have his mind entirely on the job, even as he is speaking and moving and hitting his marks on camera. When the story does get on track, you might yourself mildly bemused by its reliance on what appears to be a fictional piece of police detective kit, something called an EviSync, which holds police files and is also a GPS tracker and camera, but is bigger and more unwieldy than an iPad.

The meat of the story is Fassbender and his hunt for the Snowman, a serial killer who leaves an actual snowman at the site of his crimes – again, a tricky business, because making snowmen is a time-consuming affair and there is every chance that someone will remember a grown man constructing one of these.

The Snowman’s backstory is given at the beginning of the movie, revealing the origin of his traumatic fixation with parenthood and orphanhood. And, through a quirk of fate, Hole has very similar issues. His drinking and boorish behaviour has caused the breakup of his long-term relationship with art dealer Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), but, poignantly, she wishes to remain on friendly terms with him, at least partly because Harry had grown to be a loving father figure to Rakel’s tricky teenage son, Oleg (Michael Yates), as close to him as any biological dad. On the work front, Harry is thrown together with new detective Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson), who has personal reasons of her own for wanting to nail the Snowman, and also has a preoccupation with glitzy, sinister businessman Arve Støp (JK Simmons).

JK Simmons in The Snowman.
JK Simmons in The Snowman. Photograph: Allstar/Universal Pictures

It is wayward Kilmer who gets the key role in the film’s best image. Seagulls are swarming over the Snowman’s latest corpse. This cop takes out his gun and fires once into the air, and the birds take off, revealing the distinctive way the killer has chopped up the body into bits, like Saul Bass’s poster illustration for Anatomy of a Murder. The violence discloses the pattern.

Fassbender is reasonably plausible as a drinker, although most drinkers don’t get to look as good or as gym-built as he does. Yet he sells it, and is less reliant on the jaw-clenching, grimacey mannerisms that he sometimes goes into. Fassbender is able to do all this at least partly because of excellent character support from Gainsbourg and Ferguson. Simmons works well as the dysfunctional mogul who has a disconcerting habit of taking pictures on his phone of women he’s only just met. There is an embarrassment of riches in the supporting roles, actually: Chloë Sevigny has a part playing twins and no less an actor than Anne Reid has a tiny cameo as a concerned neighbour. If Fassbender gets brought back as Harry Hole for another Nesbø film, it would be great to see Reid return, too, with a bigger role, on either side of the law.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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