By Jeff Reichert
Dir. David Gordon Green, U.S. Warner Independent
Snow Angels, the fourth feature by the preternaturally visually gifted, yet often narratively scattershot filmmaker David Gordon Green almost begs to be disliked. Forgoing the burnt-out rural environs that enveloped his first three features and in no small way contributed to their positive critical reception (city critics alternately love and hate the outsider), Green here attempts not just his first literary adaptation (of a terribly grim novel by Stewart O’Nan), but one that required a move North of the Mason-Dixon line for the first time in his filmmaking career. This geographic shift wouldn’t be terribly notable if the contemporary South, and the pockets of visual beauty he searched out there, hadn’t represented as fully formed a character in his oeuvre as any of those portrayed by his actors.
Call Snow Angels Pennsylvania Gothic—the film’s credit sequence, which captures in a series of shots the narcoleptic middle-class bustle of the suburban mid-Atlantic in winter, proffers a graying world far removed from Undertow’s luminescent fairy-tale dystopia or the sun-kissed All the Real Girls. (Who knows how much further the upcoming Pineapple Express will stray from the familiar David Gordon Green template?) The connective tissue between Green’s North and South is, of course, an overweening interest in class struggle, impoverishment being the quiet antagonist of all of his films. The characters in Snow Angels—working-class single mother Annie (Kate Becksinsale), her ex-husband, recovering (poorly) alcoholic, and burgeoning Christian Glenn (Sam Rockwell), and teen tuba player Arthur (Michael Angarano), who Annie once babysat, could all have existed within George Washington’s emotional and financial landscape. But here, in the harsh mid-Atlantic winter, they’re less recognizable, bundled in hats and parkas, taking refuge from the cold, each other, and the sense of impending crisis that casts a pall over the film. Class is the villain of Snow Angels, those struggling against its boundaries to change their lives or merely subsist—nearly everyone in the film—are its heroes.
The cold and ugly seem to have grounded Green as a filmmaker—the rapturous haze and languorously roving camera of his first features with cinematographer Tim Orr have given way to a more stolid, workmanlike vision. The filmmaking here, taken on a whole, is nearly traditional. (I’ve heard Snow Angels described as the death of America’s “last great formalist,” but, really, what good is formalism for its own sake?) This withdrawal from the director’s signature tics, this rigor and attentiveness to the needs of the narrative and performance, only makes those moments in which Green allows his camera to come unhinged and unmotivated all the more striking. A sign of maturity in a filmmaker who risked continuing charges of empty aestheticism had he continued echoing himself (and aping Malick) from film to film? Unclear, but consider the roving tracking shot that takes in the chaos following the disappearance of Annie and Glenn’s daughter—her tract-home living room bursts into a riot of activity, an influx of bodies shrinking the already cluttered space, but the camera’s movements slowly and methodically circumscribe what feels like a universe. Or consider as well the film’s sincere homage to Béla Tarr—a long, static take in which Glenn dances with a few anonymous drunks in a bar that echoes the opening “celestial bodies” dance of Werckmeister Harmonies. It’s risky stuff, and definitely pitched straight at the cinephile set (though it still works on its own as a signpost towards Glenn’s dissolution), but I like this slight homage much more than the Tarr drag show Gus Van Sant’s been performing these past few years. Green’s tipping his hat to an influence on his way to accessing a mature style rather than merely adapting the guise of another.
That Snow Angels deals in large part with the world of adults is new and unfamiliar territory for Green, and he only achieves mixed results in scenes dealing with Annie and Glenn’s deteriorating relationship. (This is perhaps more a problem with the source material and Green’s stubborn fidelity to it than it is with the filmmaking.) A few reviews I’ve read chalk this failure up to the impossibility of believing the beauteous Kate Beckinsale as a working-class mom, but anyone who’s stepped foot in a high school knows this character, that impossibly gorgeous girl that everyone (except her) knows is fated never to leave her hometown. I believe in her performance more than I do Sam Rockwell’s—even in moments meant to evoke the highest pathos or most violent danger he still seems an incorrigible wise-ass playing at acting rather then immersing himself in a character. His growing instability never feels a true threat, even if the film’s end (and its newspaper ads) finds him marching Annie off into the woods with a shotgun. Thankfully O’Nan’s novel balances the world of adults, however uneasily, with the onset of puppy love between doughy Angarano and his bespectacled classmate Lila (Olivia Thirlby)—some will surely experience nausea in their scenes together, and it’s certainly twee stuff (think back to the “invention of peanut butter” in All the Real Girls), but the film stays true to the dissonance between the overwhelming absorption of young love as contrasted with events in the larger world—their first kiss is among the truest such moments I can readily recall, but its impact is quickly blunted by the narrative’s turn towards disaster.
Call Snow Angels the anti-Juno, as Green’s vision of small town rust belt living occupies a much darker space than Jason Reitman’s infantile vision. Much of what I like about Green, and Snow Angels, falls in this nebulous area of sensibility—the intellectual case I’ve made for this film and his first three features never quite captures that ineffable way in which they work for me. Still, for all that I enjoy in the moment to moment experience of watching Snow Angels, those bits in which Green, his actors, Orr, and David Wingo’s score combine harmoniously are almost outweighed by the film’s disastrously mawkish (borderline misogynist) conclusion—Green seems to be flying towards the hot light of tragedy on clipped wings, assumedly borrowed from O’Nan’s novel (which sounds possibly less compassionate towards Annie than the film). The sense of mountainous, swelling angst always present in the film, but nearly (laughably) unbearable by the finale finds Green shooting for operatic, and nearly sinking his film entirely. Here’s a filmmaker struggling uneasily to find his place, a fascinating watch for those like me who believe this young filmmaker exhibits boundless potential. Even so, it’s impossible not to admit that Snow Angels represents abundant ammunition for Green’s chorus of naysayers.