by Dionisio “Don” Traverso Jr.
It seemed like a slam dunk. A film based on one of a great series of detective novels. Starring a favorite actor, Michael Fassbender. Co-starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, another favorite. With J.K. Simmons? And Toby Jones? AND Val Kilmer??? Directed by Tomas Alfredson, director of one of my favorite vampire movies, Let the Right One In??? How can it go wrong?
My brain is still trying to parse what it was I’d spent two hours watching. I think I understand what this movie was about. Hell, I solved the mystery in the first 35 minutes. But I’m still shaking my head, asking, “what the fuck….?” Much of the film seemed like a random series of events, which usually isn’t good for a mystery.
The movie opens on a cabin in snowy Norway. A boy announces the arrival of Uncle Jonas to his mother. He isn’t expected. Jonas drives up in a police car. Mom seems nervous about this unexpected visit. Next, they are sitting at the kitchen table as Jonas quizzes the boy about Norwegian history. When the boy gets a question wrong, Jonas smacks Mom across the face. When he gets it wrong again, Jonas hits Mom hard enough to knock her off her chair. “You have to help him more,” Jonas calmly tells her, and boy goes outside and builds a snowman. Later, the boy returns to the house and spies Jonas and Mom post coitus. She sees him, and tells Jonas that she is telling his wife that the boy is his son. Jonas angrily leaves, saying she won’t see him again. Mom and son get in her car to chase down Jonas’s police car. She loses him, and in despair lets go of the steering wheel. The boy sees this and pulls the emergency brake. The car skids out onto a frozen lake and the ice begins to crack underneath. The boy escapes the car, but Mom doesn’t, seemingly staring at him and having given up.
That’s when we meet Harry Hole (shut up – I can hear you snickering in the back there), an alcoholic police detective prone to passing out while on a bender in public places. His life is shit. His girlfriend, who he still loves, has left him and shacked up with a plastic surgeon. He’s forgotten her son’s birthday in a week-long drunk, and feels guilty because the boy idolizes him (among other things). His boss struggles to cover for his drunken disappearances, but he’s close to being terminated. And now, someone has sent him a cryptic letter, about his penchant for passing out in public places, about watching mommy while he was sleeping, and building her a snowman.
Then a single mother of a young girl disappears from her home, door left wide open. Harry and his new partner, a new recruit named Katrine Bratt, go to investigate, where Harry notices a snowman on the front lawn. Actually, before this, Harry pokes around Katrine’s bag while she is interviewing a witness, find a cold case file, and the movie does its first abrupt flashback to another case involving another detective played by a very unhealthy looking Val Kilmer.
Abrupt seems to be the style with the narrative shifts in this movie. It makes the movie seem like something is missing all throughout, which, if you believe director Alfredson, there is. But it goes further than that. There are moments where scenes are wonderfully edited. They are followed up with (many) scenes that have so many cuts in the editing they make any Transformer movie look soporific. One scene at a hockey game, where the emphasis is in characters talking in the stands, has so many edits it can cause epilepsy. It’s a shame, because for the most part the film is beautifully shot. There’s real talent in front and behind the camera. Alfredson directed Let The Right One In and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, both of which earned many awards and award nominations for direction and cinematography. He knows how to make a great looking film. This movie spoils lots of great shots with Cuisinart editing.
This could have been a good movie. Fassbender acts the hell out of his role as Hole. The script fails him. Harry Hole comes off as one of the most idiotic detectives next to Will Ferrell in Holmes & Watson. He figures out Batt’s hidden agenda faster than he connects the letter with the growing number of disappearances and murders. He misses so many obvious clues you want to club him upside his head. He’s touted to be a brilliant detective – Bratt tells him she studied his cases in the police academy – but you’d be hard pressed to believe that, seeing how he proceeds with the investigation. When Bratt calls him about another disappearance while he’s at a show with his girlfriend’s son, he doesn’t want to go. She insists they go to the crime scene immediately because the missing woman’s husband asked for him specifically. He leaves the concert early, take the boy home, then tells Bratt they will go the next morning. “Another missing person? And the husband asked for me? Fuck it. It can wait.”
Speaking of which, that particular disappearance has the interesting twist that the woman turns out not missing after all, but after Harry and Katrine question her and leave, they get a call about her disappearance again from her husband, again asking for Harry to look into it. Where does it lead? Nowhere. Harry figures that the killer made the phone calls and was watching them. Knowing this, is Harry careful about his movements from then on? Is Katrine? Nope. Then what’s the point of this twist?
Then there’s Val Kilmer. I can’t honestly evaluate his acting here, because it’s as incomplete as most everything in this fucking movie. When he spoke in the aforementioned first flashback, my immediate reaction, taken together with his almost unrecognizable face, was “That’s not Val Kilmer!” Worse, when he speaks, the camera is behind him, so you don’t actually see him speak. A later flashback, with him going to a crime scene on a mountain, has no dialogue outside of awkward police radio conversations about the crime and the fact he is heading there. It’s so very strange and badly done, but damn, it was beautifully shot. Kilmer has one other scene with dialogue that you do see him say words, but the voice isn’t his. It’s disconcerting and took me out of this already perturbing film. I understand from subsequent research that Kilmer had serious health issues with his mouth, but then why wasn’t his role recast? This voice issue is way worse than Superman’s upper lip in Justice League.
J.K. Simmons and Toby Jones are wasted in this, especially Simmons. His character, a wealthy man both campaigning to bring the Olympics to Oslo and running a prostitution ring, is rife with possibilities, none of them realized. Everyone in the script is woefully underwritten. Things happen, decision are made, with the expressed purpose to lead to the somewhat anticlimactic ending, with no regard to logic or sense. And there is no reason for this. The producer (Martin Scorsese!), the screenwriters, and the director chose to deviate from the original book, which is not unfilmable. They could’ve done the book straight, with a little streamlining, and it would’ve made more sense than this baffling mess. Instead, we have a killer with a very shaky motive you can’t buy, an unsatisfying denouement, and a movie that doesn’t end so much as just stop.
So much potential. So much talent. This movie is like having Gordon Ramsey serve you raw chicken, the plot and script are so undercooked. “It’s RAW! IT’S FUCKING RAW!!!” If I had the DVD of this, I’d fling it against the wall. It’s infuriating and sad.
1 ½ cheese curds out of 5, only for Michael Fassbender and the beautiful cinematography.