If you know how to read the signs—if you, to coin a phrase, have all the clues—The Snowman has reeked of disaster for months. You’d expect the first movie in six years from critical favorite Tomas Alfredson, the director of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Let the Right One In, to be a major event, especially with a cast led by Michael Fassbender and including Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Chloë Sevigny. But despite the blanketing ubiquity of the movie’s ad campaign—the one with the stick-figure snowman and the scrawled handwritten text—The Snowman is arriving in theaters with barely a whisper: I know diehard Alfredson fans who weren’t even aware he directed it until a few days ago. That it was kept away from U.S. critics until Wednesday night and the reviews were embargoed until a few hours before the first public Thursday-night screenings only increased the sense of foreboding.
Let’s say, however, you manage to make it into a screening of The Snowman without knowing any of this. That “MISTER POLICEMAN” ad campaign has caught your attention, and Michael Fassbender is easy on the eyes, so why not? You’d probably make it through the first few scenes, which establish the killer’s backstory and introduce us to Fassbender’s alcoholic Oslo detective, Harry Hole, without feeling anything was particularly amiss. (You’d probably snigger at the first mention of the character’s name, but you can get over that.) The first intimation that The Snowman is going to be a cataclysm of truly epic proportions comes when Val Kilmer enters the picture as a detective investigating the same killer’s crimes in the city of Bergen nine years earlier. Kilmer’s Gert Rafto sits silent as a man tells him about his missing wife, and when it’s his turn to speak, the film cuts abruptly to a shot from behind Kilmer’s head so he’s only visible as a silhouette. His shoulders jerk as he talks, like a puppet being operated by an unseen hand. It’s only subtly disorienting at first, but then you realize that the voice that’s purportedly coming out of Kilmer’s mouth doesn’t sound like him at all, and when the film finally cuts to his face on his third (of three total) lines, it’s clear Kilmer’s lines have been redubbed by another actor.
Kilmer’s second appearance, in a later flashback, is even stranger. The scene involves him arriving at the snowy mountaintop where the pieces of the missing woman’s body have been deposited, laid out like the pieces of a bloody jigsaw puzzle, but his character doesn’t speak at all. Instead, the scene, which runs for several minutes, is narrated by a disembodied voice on a walkie-talkie, which doesn’t cover over how strange its jagged cutting is. (The Snowman separately credits two editors, Thelma Schoonmaker and Claire Simpson.) Other characters talk to Kilmer, but he never responds, and moments later he’s standing on a peak, firing a gun into the air and scaring a flock of birds.
Kilmer has three more scenes, including a wordless one where he finds a note sent to him by the killer, one where he climbs out the window of a police station, and a final, extremely brief one that I won’t spoil here. In all, and this is a generous assessment, he has maybe 10 lines of spoken dialogue, all with that same non-Kilmer-ish voice. In a Reddit AMA in May, Kilmer disclosed that he had had “a healing of cancer,” and his tongue “was still swollen altho healing all the time,” so it’s possible he simply wasn’t able to get his dialogue out in an intelligible fashion. But the fact that The Snowman used this bizarre workaround instead of recasting the part or reshooting his scenes is a good indicator of how astonishingly careless and incompetent the final product is.