Based on the ingredients, I wanted to like this movie. Jo Nesbø’s 2007 novel is an engaging potboiler, the seventh in a continuing series of novels starring troubled detective Harry Hole that have put their author at the top tier of Scandinavian crime fiction alongside Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell (both of whom have had their iconic works successfully adapted to the screen). Then there’s a cast full of people I like watching: Michael Fassbender seems a perfect choice for Harry, J.K. Simmons is almost always the best part of anything he’s in, Charlotte Gainsbourg has taken on a variety of interesting and challenging work, Val Kilmer continues to show up in unexpected places, even Chloë Sevigny gets to do a brief double role as twins. Behind the camera is the chilly Swedish style of Tomas Alfredson–known in this country for a pair of excellent films: Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy–and a set of screenwriters whose collective credits include Drive, Frank, The Men Who Stare at Goats, and the TV series The Killing, all of which I enjoyed. This project, on paper, should work.
But instead it’s disastrously muddled and ultimately feels somewhat pointless. The film seems to be going for an icy detachment, but instead comes off cynically disinterested in things like plot, character, or suspense–somewhat important elements for what is purportedly a psychological thriller. In a nutshell, there’s a serial killer abducting and occasionally decapitating women in Oslo who leaves snowmen as his calling card (for reasons that are never really explored, by the way). Harry, along with newbie detective Katarine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), drunkenly stumbles into the case while trying to manage a relationship with Oleg (Michael Yates), the teenage son of his ex-girlfriend Rakel (Gainsbourg).
This basic premise proceeds absent the commitment to clever misdirection that made the novel work; subplots involving a former detective (Kilmer) and a rich industrialist (Simmons) sort of putter out without really going anywhere or tying in to the central mystery with any resonance. Worse, very little is done to disguise the identity of the killer–the movie goes out of its way to emphasize there’s something off about a character that keeps showing up without adding much to the plot–which takes the wind out of any kind of tension or mystery. In theory, this could be fine–the story could delve into its characters’ psychology instead, becoming more of a whydunnit than a whodunnit, but here too it stumbles. Harry comes off as Fassbender on autopilot, the embodiment of a trope (“trouble-making, alcoholic master detective” is as stock character as it gets) rather than a three-dimensional person with what’s actually a crucial backstory. Despite Ferguson’s best efforts Katarine, the most interesting character in the novel, is effectively robbed of her complexity completely and reduced to a password with daddy-issues and a (practically literal) plot device. And the stakes are never really established for the killer beyond a too-obvious prelude; a violent, self-loathing pathology reduced to “mommy didn’t love me enough,” if that (although at least nipples figure less prominently in the film than they did in the novel).
Script issues aside, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the film formally. Its style is pretty much exactly what you’d expect–lots of shots of the snowy Norwegian landscape, sleek and modern production design, an appropriately brooding soundtrack, and so on. But unlike a movie like, say, David Lynch’s Dune–which also does a terrible job of communicating the basic plot of its source material–there’s nothing stylistically audacious enough to make it stand out and distract from the narrative problems, wildly uneven pace, and stilted dialog. So instead of actually communicating something about human nature, we’re left with what feels like a five-years-too-late cash grab on the success of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It’s a shame.
The reason I went to this movie at all is because I’m at heart a contrarian and, in case it wasn’t obvious, a fan of Nesbø’s writing, so I want to find something redeemable in this mess. But I’m having trouble because its missing what attracted me to the novel in the first place: a propulsive energy and sense of mystery. I went out and bought the book after my roommate returned it to the library, just because I needed to finish it; imagining seeing half the movie, I don’t really feel like I’d care if I finished it or not. So, I guess, if you want a better adaptation of a Nesbø novel, rent the underrated Headhunters instead. If you want a good Michael Fassbender movie, revisit his more challenging work with Steve McQueen. If you want an engrossing criminal thriller, pretty much anything David Fincher does will be more satisfying. Don’t waste your time.