The Snowman (Alfredson; 2017)

Jo Nesbo is a Norwegian crime novellist known the world over for revolutionizing modern crime fiction and has won a great many awards in addition to his popularity.  Tomas Alfredson is a Swedish film director known in the United States primarily for the Academy Award nominated Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as well as the horror classic Let the Right One In.  You would think that putting these two gentlemen together along with the phenomenal acting talent of Michael Fassbender would guarantee a quality film just awaiting critical acclaim and the attention of the film awards circuit.  That, however, is not to be the fate of The Snowman, a film which despite the pedigree of its acting, writing, and directing talents went horribly wrong.

The film opens with a series of camera shots you would expect in a Bourne film fight scene with a series of quick close ups and zoom outs cut together so quickly you barely have a moment to make out what you are seeing on screen.  But, this isn’t an action scene.  It’s just following a man entering a house then sitting at a table.  It’s an interesting choice that the most mundane action possible is filmed via frantic camerawork, but this is only done once.  Shortly after this we have a strange zoom through the windshield of a car which is reminiscent of an effect someone would use to show a space ship going into faster than light travel in a science fiction film, but it’s used for someone who is just pulling out of their garage normally.  One shot of this drive uses a very obvious CGI close up of the back of the car so out of date it looks like it was created in 1992, but none of the rest of the drive uses CGI at all, and again, it’s for the most part just a normal drive through a snowy landscape.  No high speed chase, no stunt work.  Again, nothing like this is shown again in the movie.  It’s just a strange choice for no obvious reason.

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The acting choices made throughout the film are also odd, so odd that there were times if I wondered if anyone in the movie had ever actually met another human being before.  Two characters will stare meaningfully at one another as if they were sharing some dark secret silently that only they know, or perhaps one is warning the other that they know what the other is up to only to find in the very next scene seconds later that the two have never met and are now being introduced.  Fassbender’s Harry Hole at one point attacks a person doing repair work on his apartment, and chases the repair person into the street, and we never know why nor hear from the character of the repair person again.  In fact, stares, awkward silences, and two people seemingly having completely different conversations as they speak past one another seems more common in this film than normal, recognizable human interaction.

I think these strange choices all have a reason which was found out near the film’s end, but that reason is in itself so bizarre if I am correct that it just adds yet another strange choice to the myriad of others rather than clarify anything.  Without spoiling anything, one of the characters has a trait that is a major influence on the actions of another, and all this monkeying around with strange interactions and camera work seems to be a hint to the audience about this character trait.  The trouble is that not only could this trait have been far more easily shown in mere seconds than by hinting for an entire movie, but there also seems no reason whatsoever to keep that trait a secret from the audience.

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There are some gorgeous shots of the Norwegian landscape in The Snowman, as well as some excellent framing of the city of Oslo, though I have to wonder does every house in Norway have windows on the inside so people can see into living rooms and bedrooms and the like?  Even the film being set in Norway is odd since every character speaks in English, American English, for the entire film with no establishing that they are actually speaking in Norwegian but are being broadcast in English for the sake of ease.  In the end, there is no reason to have the film set in Norway over anywhere else in the world, so why not just relocate the film to a cold climate in the United States if they are speaking American English?  This is a nitpick more than a major complaint, but when added to everything else in the film, it is just one more strange, pointless decision added to the pile.

Add all these factors together, and the crime thriller element of The Snowman just does not work partially because you are so distracted by the amateurism on display and partially because you are too busy laughing and scratching your head to be engaged in the plot.  Michael Fassbender was once an actor who would get my excited for his next project, and was good enough that I was willing to give what seemed bad choices the benefit of the doubt, but with his last few films including X-Men: Apocalypse, Assassin’s Creed, Alien: Covenant, and now The Snowman I have to now label him as an excellent actor who makes horrible decisions as to which roles to play.

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Final verdict:  The Snowman is not quite so incompetently made as to be so bad it’s entertaining, but many of its scenes are and film as a whole only barely misses that mark.  Incomprehensible writing, acting, and directorial decisions add up to make a film which leaves the audience more concerned with the ineptitude of the film makers than with the actual story.  Unless a handful of good shots of snowy landscapes are enough to pique your interest, there is nothing of value in The Snowman to recommend.  While the story itself does make sense, nothing about the way that story is put together does.

 

 

Nocturnal Animals (Ford; 2016)

Amy Adams is Susan Morrow, an art gallery director living in Los Angeles in Nocturnal Animals.  She is living a life many people think they aspire to with multiple penthouse apartments in multiple cities, a husband with a good career of his own and fashion model looks, admiration from the masses, but she feels empty and knows much of the image she projects is a sham.  One day she gets a package in the mail, and in this package is a book manuscript from her ex-husband (Edward Sheffield played by Jake Gyllenhall) of 20 years earlier with a note asking her to read it and asking for her opinion.  Intrigued and nostalgic for her old life, she does so, and this story within a story along with the way she reacts to it is the crux of Nocturnal Animals.

Nocturnal Animals is a well crafted film.  The book within the movie is the more archetypal story with a narrative that builds and crescendos using the classical elements of drama, but Susan’s story as she reads the manuscript and interacts with her world is what gives the movie its real weight and meaning.  One piece of the film could not exist without the other even though they appear on the surface to be separate stories.  Part of me wonders if this is as much a crutch as a device since neither story really has a lot to offer on its own, it is at least a well concealed and used crutch.

The best part of Nocturnal Animals is most certainly the performances from its excellent cast of actors.  Amy Adams shows time and time again in everything she touches that she is truly a jewel in Hollywood’s crown and unarguably one of the greatest actors working today.  Jake Gyllenhall has to play double duty in two different roles in Nocturnal Animals, and one of those two is the largest role in the film, but Amy Adams gets top billing here despite that not just because she gives the best performance but because without her very sensitive and profound interpretation of the character of Susan this film would most likely fail.  Every performance on display is remarkable, and it is obvious that Ford is truly an “actors’ director”,  but Amy Adams stands out even amongst the other great work on display.

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Just rub it in that most of us in the cast never even got to work with her.

The visuals, and in particular the art direction, in Nocturnal Animals is sumptuous, and the one thing that rivals the acting for quality.  The movie takes place in two very different worlds, those being the wealthiest playgrounds of the Los Angeles elite power players and the poorest most remote areas of West Texas.   From the most lush of penthouses to the trashiest of trailers no detail was left untouched and the framing of each shot was also obviously thought through to most take advantage of the environment.  The director, Tom Ford, is known as much or more as a fashion designer as he is a film director, and his eye for detail is most certainly a heavy influence on his directorial style which very much shows in every visual element of Nocturnal Animals.

The success of Nocturnal Animals ultimately, though, falls on the weight of its themes.  It’s what this movie is all about as it makes so apparent, and in that area I cannot give better than a very mixed review.  Nocturnal Animals is through and through a revenge story, and while I can’t give any details about that revenge without spoiling a great deal, the ultimate message seems to be that all of us out there, no matter how well meaning, are rotten to the core and our rottenness spreads and infects even the most innocent and well intentioned eventually.  This message is wielded like a sledge hammer throughout the film, and particularly in its ending.  It’s a message that even though obvious is well stated, but ultimately, why is it a message worth stating?  First off, even if true, it’s something a great many already feel and don’t need to be told, but more importantly, the film gives no solution or advice, just condemnation and anger.  It’s ultimately a nihilistic, pessimistic piece of work.  It can be used as a form of catharsis for those, which would be nearly all of us, who felt they have been wronged by someone in their past but in a film as dark as this one I prefer at least an offer of some sort of solution or a story told in a way that makes us come to surprise revelations about our own nature rather than one that wields negative emotion as a broad sweeping cudgel.

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Investigating the scene where the broad sweeping cudgel was used.

There is a lot to like about Nocturnal Animals, the wonderful performances most of all, but its lovingly detailed visuals and its intricacies of the story are also quite the pleasure to mull over, and almost demand this be a film you view more than once to take everything in.  However, your enjoyment will hinge on whether you can take the themes which are not just dark but downright mean and angry, but nevertheless the most integral part of understanding the story.  I recommend Nocturnal Animals to those who are Oscar junkies, as you will be seeing this movie mentioned in the nominations, and to those who need to vent pent up anger at someone who betrayed you in the past, but if you are a well adjusted casual movie goer, it’s a little harder to determine if this is one you should see.  I guess all I can say is if you find yourself drawn to story within a story plots and don’t worry too much about the positivity nor practicality of a movie’s message, then Nocturnal Animals is a movie for you, otherwise this is one to take in at your own risk.

Rating:  7.2 out of 10