Director Tomas Alfredson has, with rather unseemly eagerness (I suppose he knew that his otherwise admirable career couldn't afford such a nasty black mark at this point, without getting in front to go on the offensive), told all of us how The Snowman production was so fraught that he and his crew didn't even film somewhere between 10% and 15% of the screenplay. And that would have certainly helped. But it leaves the problem of the 85% that did get shot, which frankly sucks.

The film is adapted from one of several novels in Jo NesbΓΈ's "Harry Hole" series of novels - pronounced "Holl-eh" in Norwegian (though not by any of the film's British actors), and the name was apparently deliberately meant to cause English-language speakers to do a double-take. In my case, it succeeded. Also, I'm angry that we had one chance for Michael Fassbender to play a character named "Harry Hole", and it wasn't in a third Magic Mike film. Anyway, the story is centered around a very dour police detective poking around a very bleak Norwegian winter. I don't actually know if any of that's in the book; it's definitely in the movie, though, which goes so far all-in on greys and greyish browns and brownish greys that it's frankly impossible to take it seriously at all. It's unrelenting, but in the most trivial, unimaginative way, and Fassbender (who by no means is a bulletproof actor, though I can't think of the last time I was this disenchanted with one of his performances) wears a completely washed-out, miserable expression all throughout the movie, evoking a pissy teenager more than a man suffocating on the injustice of the world.

So anyway, Harry Hole is good at two things: solving murder cases, and ruining his life with alcohol. And when he's not able to do the former, it's a good bet he'll be doing the latter, which is how we meet him. Luckily, though, somebody is murdering women in and around Oslo. We kind of know who it is: the film's unnecessarily transparent opening scene depicts a young boy (Leonard Heinemann) making a creepy snowman before the corrupt cop (Peter Dalle) who illegitimately fathered him comes by to abuse both the boy and his mother (Sofia Helin). Then the mother peacefully drives her car out onto a frozen lake - much loving care is spent making sure we notice that it's a Volvo, and I don't know if that's production design or product placement - and lets the car fall through the ice, drowning her. Decades pass, after which mothers of illegitimate children conceived through adultery are killed, with snowmen left in their front yards as a grim but also kind of hilarious calling card.

Or something. The actual serial killer part of this serial killer movie was to be found in the 15%, I think. Mostly, this is about Harry Hole's being a horrible sad sack who allows himself to be distracted by investigating the killings ("happily distracted", I almost said, but nothing is done happily in The Snowman), which means that he's also really terrible in keeping up with his ex-girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who still obviously loves him even though she's now dating a very stable doctor named Mathias (Jonas Karlsson); and being a terrible surrogate father to Rakel's son Oleg (Michael Yates), who is probably his actual biological son, though also maybe not. 15%.

He also starts working with an ambitious new cop from the country, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), who ends up being central to an enormously elaborate subplot involving a pervy captain of industry, Arve Stop (J.K. Simmons), spearheading a campaign to bring the Off-Brand Winter Olympics to Oslo. And this enormously elaborate subplot ends up having nothing to do with anything.

It's not so much a "bad" movie as an "unfathomably incompetent" movie. Every now and then, Alfredson and cinematographer Dion Beebe crap out a pretty gorgeous frame: blue emergency lights casting a ghostly glow across a winter forest; sharp blue skies towering over a sliver of white ground; a flock of birds being shocked off of a corpse in a lovely, white-dominated composition from a great height and in much depth, one of the most beauitfully despairing images in a film where despair usually looks like that crummy brown slush that happens about three hours after snowfall in a city. Some of the performances are fine - Gainsbourg has a total nothing role, but she pushes some feeling and warmth into it, and Val Kilmer, being treated for cancer and looking like hell (and being dubbed with the weirdest voice in a film of weird voices) still manages to put over a raw, madness as a good cop driven to impotent rage by a bad world.

And is that it? I think that's it. The fact that this very, very Norwegian tale is filled with very, very British accents never stops being horrible and distracting, but it becomes particularly horrible when Simmons shows up to demonstrate an English accent that he apparently picked up by watching American cartoons from the 1970s parodying swinging Londoners. And the storytelling is goddamn impenetrable: I could easily provide you an act-by-act summary of the whole thing, but I truly don't know that I could explain how every scene worked. I'm entirely taking it on faith that the snowmen which give the film its title have any reason for being there other than providing some ready shots for the trailer. And how characters learn information and when they learn it, this even faith cannot provide. Nor can I make sense of why the nine-years-ago flashbacks to Kilmer's drunk cop Rafto are placed where they are, or which character is meant to be flashing back to them. And the ultimate villain reveal is cheap and dumb, an arbitrary twist that makes sense only on the logic of Roger Ebert's rule about conservation of characters (the killer will be the character who doesn't have any reason to be in the film except to be revealed as a killer).

It took two great editors, Thelma Schoonmaker and Claire Simpson - working independently from each other, it would seem - to chop together the 85% completed footage into something that at least mimics a functioning narrative, but even with obvious overdubs and scenes of people stating plot-relevant material like they're reading the instructions on a box of cold medicine, they didn't actually get there. There are few out-and-out continuity errors, though there are monstrous continuity gaps: places where a point is brought up in a very noticeable way but never followed up on (this basically describes the entire character of Arve Stop), places where something is presented as though it wraps up an established conflict that we've never been told about, places where there's just a big ol' hole, right in the middle (the snowmen especially, which are never actually a clue for anybody except the audience). This is what happens, somehow, when the director of Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy collaborates with the editor of Raging Bull and Goodfellas and the editor of Platoon and The Constant Gardener. It's enough to make you appreciate good, anonymous hackwork.