It’s a hallowed group, that fraternity of Important Three-Named People You’re Supposed to Approve of If You Take Cinema Seriously. And with the recent ubiquity of director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, it could use some new blood. Someone really special, who can somehow seem overrated and underrated at once, while still maintaining the alluring advantage of quasi-obscurity, of “Wait, where have I heard that name?”
And so, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome ITNPYSTAOIYTCS’ newest inductee, writer-director David Gordon Green. Having debuted in 2000 at age 25 with George Washington, gone on to make All The Real Girls and Undertow and now Snow Angels, his adaptation of Stewart O’Nan’s 2003 novel, Green is so totally in.
But wait. You might well be wondering: Does all this cult-of-personality stuff really matter? Not really. It’s just more interesting, unfortunately, than his latest movie.
Heretofore a sort of nouveau Southern gothicist, Green should be commended for getting out of his comfort zone with Snow Angels. But what good did it do if one of the most memorable things about his first adaptation, of a highly place-sensitive novel, is its not seeming to feel at home? Whereas O’Nan lives in Connecticut and rather meticulously set his book in mid-’70s Pennsylvania, Green locates his Snow Angels in what might or might not be the present, merely somewhere in the Northeast where it snows a lot. Could be he’s leery of that sometimes-oppressive literalism motion pictures can impose on a story (Green’s previous films also suggest a poetic inclination), but it looks more like he’s just avoiding specificity.
And so we find ourselves again in that classily downbeat indie-film world of American suburbia, where life has an archly banal quality and seething tensions bring about a tangible (in this case, snow-muted) hush—usually resulting in suffocated marriages and catastrophic violence. Plus, it’s cold. Do we really need to stick around and watch what happens?
What happens is a murder-suicide and a missing 4-year-old girl and some adultery, and at least two suffocated marriages.
Yes, that’s another memorable thing about Snow Angels: It’s really depressing.
There’s some hope, however, in one of the movie’s relationships. That’s between Arthur (Michael Angarano), a young teenager, and Lila, a girl he meets at school (Olivia Thirlby), and it takes root just in time to help mitigate the many lousy other things happening in Arthur’s life. For instance: While his numb-hearted parents (Griffin Dunne and Jeanetta Arnette) divorce, Arthur works at a diner with his former baby sitter, Annie (Kate Beckinsale), herself a newly single mother who’s left her unstable, alcoholic, born-again husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell) for some seedy-motel liaisons with the husband (Nicky Katt) of a co-worker friend (Amy Sedaris). It’s Annie’s 4-year-old who goes missing, by the way, just as Glenn starts agitating for another chance to be a part of the girl’s life. And snow falls from leaden skies. And fate grimly beckons.
In this relentlessly heavy situation, Arthur and Lila’s courtship, though uncertain, is the only consolation. It’s also the freshest, most genuine part of the movie, and probably what drew the filmmaker to this material in the first place. (In the book, Arthur is the narrator.) Angarano and Thirlby seem already like naturals, but Green enables them.
In fact, notwithstanding Sedaris, who perhaps predictably comes on like a chunk of hail in a quiet snowfall, Green makes room for greatness from all of his actors. He has a problem in the casting of Beckinsale, more present here than she usually seems, but still fundamentally implausible as a rural working-class American single mom. In the casting of Rockwell, though, he has a revelation. And if the actors seem at times intoxicated with their own performances, who can blame them? Gotta keep warm somehow, what with all the doom.
Snow Angels is not humorless, but its humor has a cruel streak—daring you to laugh as if it just can’t wait to wipe that grin off your face with some unsettling eruption of dire feeling. This semi-sadistic trick has passed as sophistication in movies for some time; when set in a wintry environment, it’s nearly its own subgenre (see also Fargo, The Ice Storm)—and just the thing for those ITNPYSTAOIYTCS to whom seriousness so dearly matters, if not necessarily for everyone.