By Gabe Toro | The Playlist September 14, 2012 at 5:10PM
It’s the folksy guitar score that early on reveals that the poker face of Tomasz Thomson’s “Snowman’s Land” is a put-on. First, it’s the twinkly strumming over scenes of muted violence, and then monotonous boredom, that reveals that “Snowman’s Land” wants you to like it, it wants you to consider that this might be a genius low key comedy: a contemporary hip hop mixing of one guitar theme helps illuminate this clearer. It’s a fairly inorganic request from a film like this, one which, when it works, affects a faint smile at best. But it’s a small world, and there simply isn’t a lot of room for that many quiet German hitman comedies. There’s no harm in picking this moment to grade on a curve.
Walter (Jurgen Ribmann) is exactly the type of guy you’d see as a low level henchman with no lines in a more bombastic crime film. Instead, here he’s living a comfortable life as competent middle management, his downtrodden hangdog face and slumped shoulders suggesting that he no longer discriminates between punching a clock and pulling a trigger. When one hit goes wrong and an extra dead body attracts attention, Walter must leave the city, taking a freelance job house-watching for local kingpin Berger (Reiner Schone). Hidden away on the snowy countryside, the isolated mansion boasts a private pool, a meth lab, and scores of empty ballrooms and bedrooms. Nice work if you can get it.
Introduced bobbling his gun in attempted tough guy postures, Mickey (Thomas Wodianka) is a younger thug also tasked with watching the place. Neither seem suspicious as to whether this is a two-man job, though it makes sense both would take into account their complimentary traits. Walter is taciturn, smart and cautious, while Mickey is ambitious, dangerous, and just the right amount of stupid. While Walter is relieved to essentially be on vacation, Mickey bristles at being confined far from society. His restless exploration of Berger’s every nook and cranny suggests he’s envisioned a life of crime based in “Scarface,” not “Office Space.”
With the slim job description, perhaps they should have asked about the house’s lone inhabitant. Berger’s attractive young wife Sybille (Eva-Katrin Hermann) seems to come and go on her own accord, heading into town to hold sex parties and returning to crush pills and possibly entertain lovers in her husband‘s home. It’s disappointing that one can’t discuss her without revealing the inciting incident of the film‘s second act. Hermann is a vivacious, lively addition to the story, though in her brief screen-time she merely serves as a plot device in order to put Mickey in the proper position to establish his own reckless idiocy. If you know the Movie Critic Code, then you’ll know that was just the reveal of a major twist in this very review. Buy yourself a root beer.
From this point, “Snowman’s Land” proceeds to twist and turn in a number of different directions, sometimes putting Walter and Mickey in grave danger, other times revealing their very own ace in the hole. The plot gets so busy that Walter, something of a criminal lifer, is robbed of the necessary agency in order to establish him as a proactive character -- occasional narration (sometimes accompanied by cartoonish imagery) does a poor job of illuminating Walter’s inner monologue, and while the film maintains his point of view, it feels like we get to know less and less about him as the film goes on. Perhaps the people who make those flashy crime films where Walter is merely a background player had a point. Ribmann’s casual exasperation is funny, but too often he’s shoved into the background, grumbling over Mickey’s behavior, or reacting to Sybille’s sex stories with indifference.
It is a credit to “Snowman’s Land” that it’s plot twists are, for the most part, not entirely predictable, nor do they ever come across as far-fetched. This creates a nice balancing act as “Snowman’s Land,” a film with few talking parts, manages to fill it’s margins with lively character types that immediately make an impression, creating a crime world much like the diverse collection of oddballs in Springfield of “The Simpsons.” Fans of that show’s earlier seasons should find something to like in “Snowman’s Land” and it’s tongue-in-cheek gritty crime world, where everyone is furiously erasing each others’ mistakes, no one is proud to be a criminal, and ambition gets rewarded with a one-way ticket to a snowy oblivion. After those initial first impressions, however, “Snowman’s Land” becomes less of an ideal destination and more of a tourist-y distraction. [C+]