Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Angarano, Olivia Thirlby, Amy Sedaris, Nicky Katt, Griffin Dunne
Running Time: 107 min.
*** (out of ****)
Was it unfair of me, given the director and subject matter, to go into Snow Angels expecting it to be nothing short of a masterpiece? Maybe, but when you have a filmmaker like David Gordon Green tackling suburban dysfunction and moral depravity, expectations of greatness are bound to accompany it. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good film, but I just anticipated a little more. It’s frustrating because so much of the film is beautiful and glimpses of what could have been are visible at every turn, yet after it concludes there isn’t a lot to extract or think about.
The story Green tells is basic and that may have been the problem. He’s a filmmaker who operates with a minimalist approach that deals primarily in capturing feelings and moods. It works for films like George Washington and All The Real Girls (and believe it or not Pineapple Express). This is the first time he’s adapting a novel (in this case Stewart O’Nan’s) to the screen and it’s easy to see how maybe the obligation of faithfulness to the source material could have limited him some.
What Green and his cinematographer Tim Orr can accomplish visually are limitless but there’s only so much that can be done with the story. It really needs to crackle with force and energy and Green’s laid back “slice-of-life” approach may not be the best match for material this weighty. The actors really had to be up for the task and most of them are, with one notable exception. Unfortunately, she plays the most important role in the film and the entire emotional impact of the story rests on her shoulders. This performance isn’t distractingly awful or anything, but in a way it’s worse in that it’s just plain bland.
Movies that cover similar territory like The Ice Storm, American Beauty and Little Children depend on us not necessarily sympathizing with deeply flawed characters but understanding them. If we can’t see at least a little of us in them it doesn’t work. Snow Angels works about halfway in that regard as I could get a handle on the motivations of most of the characters, except for the most important one. I actually kind of despised her and considering the film's bleak, tragic events that’s a serious problem. And because everything else is handled so well by Green the actress has to take the lion’s share of the blame for the false notes that are hit. She’s just wrong for the role and if another actress had played it the film would have likely been improved ten-fold. There are also other smaller issues at work, but that's the major one .
During the film's opening minutes a teacher’s impassioned pep talk during a high school marching band practice is interrupted by the sound of two gunshots in the cold, snowy air. We flash back to weeks earlier and are given glimpses into this small Pennsylvania town and the events that led up to that moment. All of them seem somehow connected to trombone player Arthur (Michael Angarano), whose parents are separating as he embarks on a relationship with the new girl at school, Lila (Juno’s Olivia Thirlby). On weekends he works at the local Chinese restaurant with waitress Annie (Kate Beckinsale), who babysat him in his youth.
Annie’s currently separated from her alcoholic, suicidal husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell). He’s recently found Jesus (and a new job) but it’s done little to curb his violent outbursts as the two spouses argue constantly over their young daughter. Annie seeks solace by having an affair with slimeball Nate (Nicky Katt), the husband of her co-worker and best friend Barb (Amy Sedaris in a rare dramatic turn). All these characters lives are about to be seriously altered by the tragic events that will unfold, or so we’re led to believe. It isn’t trying to be a mystery so much as deeply involved character study, but the film curiously only scratches the surface of what it could.
No filmmaker is more in tune with the rhythms of everyday life than Green and that’s where most of this movie’s power comes from, even when the story doesn’t seem particularly inspired. The developing romantic bond between classmates Arthur and Lila is one of the more authentic depictions of a teen relationship on film you’ll see. Nothing about it is forced and every moment Angarano (best known for playing the younger version of William Miller in Almost Famous) and Thirlbly share onscreen together is really something special. I kept waiting for them to become more than just periphery characters standing on the sidelines as the adults wreck their lives, but that never came to pass.
Arthur’s crush on Annie also didn’t go where I expected. Problematically, it didn’t go anywhere at all. The details of Arthur’s parents’ fractured relationship is as well observed as their younger counterparts, but with far less screen time. It seemed the whole film is meant to have the characters represent various stages of a relationship, from puppy love (Arthur/Lila) to complete destruction (Glenn/Annie). That's great, but you can get that insight in a therapist’s office or psychology class.
The central story is Annie’s fractured relationship with the screw-up Glenn, which is where most of the film's problems lay. First of which is a performance from Beckinsale that can best be described as “blah.” I’ve never seen a movie of hers where she registered onscreen at all or conveyed any presence so it’s odd Green would think she’s capable of lifting material this heavy. Nothing on her résumé suggested she could. It’s kind of hard to believe a filmmaker as gifted as Green didn’t have more talented actresses knocking his door down to get this part. As I watched I couldn’t help but think what Nicole Kidman or Kate Winslet (who played a similar character in Little Children) could have done with it.
Beckinsale must play an irresponsible mother cheating with her best friend’s husband. And she plays it just like that and nothing more, sleepwalking her way through the whole thing. It isn’t a bad performance, just merely serviceable and for this type of a film you need a lot more than that. As a result, Annie comes off as an uncaring bitch and when the cataclysmic event occurs about an hour in and she’s blamed for it I couldn’t disagree. It is mostly her fault. The sad part is I don’t think Green’s screenplay intended it to come off that way.
Rockwell’s layered portrayal of a man driven to the brink is much more rewarding. He plays him as a decent guy trying desperately to do good for his daughter but continuously messing up at every turn because he just can’t get a hold of his demons. We can actually see and understand how things get to the point they do with him and that’s no small feat. Here’s hoping that Beckinsale comes off so bad because Rockwell is that great. What’s worse though is that this represents her best work, which means if Green can’t coax a great performance out of her then no filmmaker can.
There’s a lot going on but the separate characters’ lives rarely intersect and the story never really comes together as a cohesive whole, which you could argue fits the realistic minimalism Green pictures usually bask in. But that doesn’t mean it helps the film. That style is fine for a meditative tone poem like All The Real Girls that explores the heartbreak of relationships but this sets itself up to be more than that and doesn’t completely deliver. It actually could even be described as almost too restrained. The result is a depressing viewing experience that’s intelligently written, beautifully shot and features a couple of very good performances. And that’s pretty much it. More gasoline needed to be added to the narrative fire.
There’s been some debate as to when the film’s events actually take place. The novel was set in the 1970’s, but contrary to Netflix’s erroneous packaging information Green did adapt the film to present day. That you really can’t tell the time period is a high compliment that represents one of his many great attributes: they exist in a timeless vacuum that doesn’t age. His control of mood and atmosphere is such that it may be intriguing to see him attempt a horror film. This could almost be considered one. Unfairly or not, some directors are just held to a higher standard than others because we expect so much. David Gordon Green tops that list. While Snow Angels is his first film with some holes in it, one of his merely good pictures will always be ten times more interesting than most filmmakers’ finest.