At 32, David Gordon Green is five years younger than Paul Thomas Anderson and six years younger than Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. The fact is worth noting, not because Green has calcified an aesthetic and turned himself into a mini-industry like the other three, but because he hasn’t. He still has the room (and time) to become the best director of his generation.
Snow Angels is not the movie that gets him there, but it features all the qualities that make him a candidate for the position. Based on a novel by Stewart O’Nan, Angels is set in an unnamed snowy place. The book specified small-town Pennsylvania, but the movie’s locale feels even chillier and further removed than that — Maine, maybe.
Annie (Kate Beckinsale) and Glenn (Sam Rockwell) are a separated husband and wife who have a toddler daughter. Glenn desperately wants Annie back, but his erratic behavior and inability to hold down a job ensure that, at best, she will only pity him. Arthur (Michael Angarano) is a local high school student whose parents are separating for vague reasons having to do with his father’s emotional distance. Arthur and Annie work at the same restaurant, and she was his babysitter years ago. With the narratives thus linked, Green moves between them.
O’Nan’s novel proves to be difficult source material. I haven’t read the book, but it’s easy to imagine the dispiriting fates of these characters more effectively conveyed with access to their interior lives. Most critically, the difficulties between Arthur’s parents (played by Griffin Dunne and Jeannetta Arnette) are underdeveloped, making their domestic strife seem minor and flat. This puts even more weight on Annie and Glenn’s relationship. Their glum, mismatched, tragic union isn’t easy to believe — Beckinsale gives a fine performance, but she’s miscast. She’s simply too beautiful, less like the prettiest girl in a go-nowhere town than a Disney princess trapped in an alternate reality. (By contrast, Zooey Deschanel was an ideal fit in All the Real Girls, lovely but imperfect.)
Lacking for earthly support, Glenn turns to religion and develops an unhealthy relationship with God, who becomes just another unhinged voice in his head. Rockwell is terrific as an epic loose cannon, binge-drinking to blunt his inner pain and then bloodily boxing a frozen tree trunk when he finds it not blunted enough. As the movie progresses, Glenn becomes increasingly comical and frightening, those traits merging when he’s seen praying beside his bed in longjohns, then turning to shout for his mother, like a combination of Charlie Brown and Norman Bates.
Green does what he can with the cold main story, but it’s a subplot that he orchestrates with perfect pitch. Arthur slowly falls in love with his friend Lila (winningly played with massive geek-appeal by Olivia Thirlby, last seen as Juno’s best friend). Their relationship feels genuine, and the warmth of it saves Snow Angels from the more uniform, deadening fatalism of films like House of Sand and Fog and A Map of the World.
It’s Green’s sensibility that lingers. As in his debut, George Washington, and All the Real Girls, the director lovingly establishes a sense of place. He’s sharply attuned to the visual cues of a geography’s character, here captured in a snowblower on a church lawn, the bleachers at a high school football game, and birds flying low over a lake’s icy surface. Green’s not interested in matching track suits or frogs raining down from the sky. He may be drawn to the darker corners of this world, but it’s this world. We’re lucky to see it through his eyes.
John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.
Snow Angels / John Williams
Film | March 13, 2008 | Comments ()