by Michael Joshua Rowin
Dir, David Gordon Green, U.S., Warner Independent Pictures
David Gordon Green shows his condescending hand early in Snow Angels. A high school marching band plays slovenly and moves in lockstep to a familiar-sounding pop hit on a football field in the cool winter air of some Everysuburb, USA. This might be a cozy sight of the Norman Rockwell variety, but a bespectacled and pained band instructor (Tom Noonan) doesn't like what he sees and gathers his students to impart the necessity of discipline and impassioned performance. "Do you have a sledgehammer in your heart? Because I have a sledgehammer in my heart. Are you ready to be my sledgehammer?" he yells, and that's when we not only recall the tune but also know the jig is up. Green essentially confesses that he doesn't really give a shit about the reality of his sleepy Pennsylvania suburb or the characters that dwell in it; not even the attendant heft of a distant gunshot that interrupts Noonan's speech—foreshadowing the film's tortured melodrama and predictable tragedy to come—can compensate. This supposed joke (some stodgy old dork is deadpanning Peter Gabriel!) and Snow Angels' other pathetic attempts at ironic and/or above-it-all quaintness are no better than the "random" signifiers of cutesiness that have been eating away like a cancer at this country's independent filmmaking ever since Rushmore, only they're insultingly padded with the Green stamp of ponderous melancholy.
If that seems like harsh criticism for what will be, I'm guessing, a tepidly lauded, inconsequential film, consider that Snow Angels was my first David Gordon Green experience. It was like arriving late to an excessively hyped party only to find an obnoxious dinner soiree hosted by a pretentious show-off—not just a disappointment, but a genuinely mystifying experience that makes you question the discrimination of your friends and neighbors. I've since learned Green's stock has gone down of late—most likely due to the indifferent reception to 2004's mediocre Undertow—but going in reverse through his career and first witnessing George Washington and All the Real Girls, the debut and sophomore efforts that earned Green comparisons to none other than Terrence Malick, was something of a shock. Perhaps these first films were always overrated, but from the vantage point of 2008 they look especially disingenuous, and one wonders what the initial fuss was all about. Yeah, there's a hint of Malick in the images of "poetic" sunsets and rickety, working class environs he lazily cuts to whenever the action wavers in the elliptical, abstruse philosophical shit-shooting of his Southern characters. But these elements rub up awkwardly against the kinds of performances he gets out of his actors—aside from Dermot Mulroney in Undertow I still haven't seen one that fits at all into his attempted visual lyricism.
Whereas Malick's characters twist and turn according to the whims of nature, quietly brooding while lost in the immensity of a universe that dwarfs them, Green's characters refuse to be humbled, and the director goes for big, revelatory moments from the likes of Paul Schneider, punch-in-the-face ingratiating in All the Real Girls, or a stuttering, hammy Sam Rockwell in Snow Angels, indulging their worst comedic and dramatic improvisational instincts and in the process coming up with small-minded facsimiles of actual feeling. And they're certainly not helped by his tin ear for dialogue. Just as the performances in his films mask their hollowness behind tested clichés of "the way people really talk," so his words operate under the same principle. "Last night I had a dream that you grew a garden on the trampoline and I was so happy that I invented peanut butter," one character vapidly tells another in All the Real Girls, and he might as well be looking out of the corner of his eye to check if the audience is fawning over his quirky adorability.
Snow Angels, adapted from Stewart O'Nan's novel, is Green's worst film to date because, unlike his previous efforts, which sometimes manage a promising scene or two before going down in flames, it offers no relief from his usual weaknesses. If anything, it amplifies them. One of the broken marriage storylines is a thinly sketched midlife-crisis satire, another quickly devolves into painfully overwrought melodramatics (including, but not limited to, cheating spouses, missing children, and mental breakdowns), and the high school romance that's supposed to be the island of sanity amidst it all is just unwatchable puppy love. There's not a little American Beauty (minus the privileged ennui) to be found in Snow Angels' snowy middle-class Pennsylvania town, but Green smoothes out the Hollywood edges to trick art-house viewers into thinking they're watching the rhythms of “real life”: a languid establishing shot every once in a while reassures the audience that Green shoots on location for a reason. Too bad his observations are straight out of Beauty and every other suburban malaise story of the past decade. Snow Angels is the kind of film that has paterfamilias and college professor Don Parkinson (Griffin Dunne) separate from wife Louise (Jeanetta Arnette), not only dating a much younger student but also buying a cold, Ikea-decked bachelor pad to signify his spiritual lockdown and ersatz existence.
Almost everything in Snow Angels spells "indie" in the blandest, most obvious dramatic sense. Louise's tower of family photos topples; Glenn (Rockwell), a mentally disturbed husband thrown out by harried wife Annie (Kate Beckinsale), speaks in unheeded born-again raptures; thrift store clothing–clad cutie Lila (Olivia Thirlby) tells her boyfriend, Arthur (Michael Angarano), son of Don and Louise, that “people don't bring out cameras for sad days.” (They don't?) The film's oppositional representations of love—Arthur and Lila's idyllic high school romance and Glenn and Annie's slowly percolating tragedy—are equally bogus, not to mention sloppily edited together. What are we supposed to do while following the path of loserdom forged by Glenn, besides just sit back and feel superior to the pitiful show? As for Arthur and Lila—did David Gordon Green ever go to high school? When Arthur evinces a clear aura of having just gotten laid Louise can only exclaim, "At least someone's getting action around here!" For a film so concerned with affecting a sense of place, Snow Angels revels in its tone deafness.
Most people would probably argue it's not worth getting worked up about a film like Snow Angels. Maybe so. But it's also the kind of film that's slowly killing a significant area of movie culture—if David Gordon Green is considered by critics to be one of the "answers" to blockbuster Hollywood, shouldn't we be more than disappointed that it only coddles sentiments and offers clichés for motivations and behaviors? Or perhaps the disparity between David Gordon Green's mediocre work and his relatively sizable reputation accords with an indifferent standard for "independent" filmmaking in this, the age of Juno? Something tells me that when Snow Angels is let off the hook by audiences and critics we'll more than receive our answer.