Deftly Lensed ‘Snowman’s Land’ Leaves Audience in the Cold

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No votes yet Oscarman rating: 2.5/5.0
Rating: 2.5/5.0

CHICAGO – The art of deadpan humor looks deceptively simple to the untrained eye. It’s fairly easy to say ridiculous things while maintaining a straight face. What separates the amateurs from the professionals is a mastery of timing as well as a keen understanding of a character’s interior life. The best deadpan laughs are the ones that allow an inside peek into the human psyche.

Tomasz Thomson’s 2010 crime thriller, “Snowman’s Land,” evokes forgotten memories of weak Coen Brothers vehicles like “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers.” There’s plenty of remarkable craft on display but little to stoke an audience’s involvement. The film is so deadpan at times that it barely has a pulse, though cinematographer Ralf M. Mendle provides the viewer with so much hauntingly desolate and gorgeously frostbitten imagery that it nearly redeems the naggingly empty experience.
Jürgen Rißmann stars as a disheveled hit man named Walter, whose eyes convey the weariness of a man who’s seen more than enough and doesn’t care to see much more. In the opening scene, Walter does a monumentally stupid thing, but then curiously goes on to serve as the film’s perceptive straightman. The care and caution that he puts into all of his subsequent decisions makes his initial choice to shoot a man without getting a good look at his face all the more inexplicable. Walter’s botched job causes him to get shipped on a “vacation” to the Carpathian Mountains, where he’s ordered to protect the house of a grouchy crime boss, Berger (Reiner Schöne), from faceless predators lurking in the woods. Walter’s bumbling foolishness quickly evaporates once he’s paired with Mickey (Thomas Wodianka, going for broke), an exceedingly idiotic loudmouth who’s allegedly an old friend of Walter’s, though it’s hard to determine why. Mickey is the sort of walking train wreck that most sensible men would cross a chasm to avoid. Indeed, Walter often looks intent on pushing Mickey over a chasm himself, yet he turns out to be a more softhearted gentleman than one would assume. He’s mainly resigned to staring in grim silence as Mickey continues to dig a deeper and deeper hole that threatens to bury them both.

Jürgen Rißmann stars in Tomasz Thomson’s Snowman’s Land.
Jürgen Rißmann stars in Tomasz Thomson’s Snowman’s Land.
Photo credit: Music Box Films

This is a very solid set-up for an entertaining movie, though the script’s notable similarities to Martin McDonagh’s marvelous “In Bruges” don’t do it any favors. Whereas “Bruges” succeeded brilliantly in causing the audience to care dearly about its ensemble of lowlifes, Thomson seems to be so detached from his characters that he even throws in a sardonic narrator to further distance the viewer from experiencing any tangible emotion. As the bodies start piling up and disaster looms over the horizon, the audience remains as indifferent as the natural landscapes to the fate of these characters. In fact, the only aspect of the film that creates genuine tension is the landscape itself. As Walter and Mickey embark deeper and deeper into the woods, the surrounding snow-caked trees create a claustrophobic canopy that appears to be encasing them within a wintry grave. There’s a striking shot of the two men clumsily skidding off a bicycle as the camera continues to glide further and further down the road ahead. I wouldn’t mind if it kept moving.

The best scene in the picture is also the one that hints at the potential of Thomson’s writing, which has a considerable number of memorably wry asides. At the start of Walter and Mickey’s visit, Berger is nowhere to be found. The lone inhabitant joining them in the oversized mansion is Berger’s wife Sibylle (Eva-Katrin Hermann), a young flirtatious sexpot who treats the men with hostility before zooming across town for some evening orgies. Upon her return one night, Sibylle curiously starts to put the moves on Mickey while delivering a deliciously horny monologue about her recent adventures. She describes the multitude of orgasms that “floated up like soap bubbles,” while wordlessly conveying her desire that Mickey share one with her. It goes without saying that the tirelessly impulsive Mickey is turned on by this jarring display of sexual hunger, though Walter is completely convinced that the woman merely has a screw loose. What happens next sets the dominoes on their inevitable slide of no return.

Jürgen Rißmann and Thomas Wodianka star in Tomasz Thomson’s Snowman’s Land.
Jürgen Rißmann and Thomas Wodianka star in Tomasz Thomson’s Snowman’s Land.
Photo credit: Music Box Films

This is one of those starkly existential thrillers in which the camera pulls way back for an extra-wide shot that exemplifies the insignificance of man in the grand scheme of the universe. The problem here is that Thomson has pulled so far back that the human drama is rendered incoherent. Rißmann and Wodianka do what they can with the undercooked material, and manage to convey a few glimmers of humanity amidst the murkiness. Rißmann is so good, in fact, that he makes one yearn to see him in a story that serves as more than a clothesline for showstopping imagery. This is a cinematography exercise in search of a soul.

‘Snowman’s Land’ stars Jürgen Rißmann, Thomas Wodianka, Reiner Schöne, Eva-Katrin Hermann and Waléra Kanischtscheff. It was written and directed by Tomasz Thomson. It was released September 28th at the Music Box Theatre. It is not rated. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

Staff Writer

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