Snow Angels(4/4/2008)

            David Gordon Green has become a critical darling, one of the most acclaimed directors to emerge this decade and one of a few successful directors to thus far remain firmly rooted in independent cinema.  I personally had a shaky start to exploring David Gordon Green’s films, as I initially had a strong negative reaction to his debut film George Washington, whose non-narrative structure caught me off guard.  I revisited the film recently and had a much more positive reception to it, but would not say I loved it.  My second try at George Washington did leave me with enough positive feelings for the filmmakers style to check out his sophomore effort All the Real Girls, a film I found to me much more interesting than his debut.  However, I was not so thrilled with his third film Undertow which felt uneven and disorganized.  Still, even when he failed for me it was clear that there was still a lot of talent in him and I was excited to see his latest film, Snow Angels.

            The film is set in a small Pennsylvania town during the winter and revolves around a large ensemble.  Annie (Kate Beckinsale) has recently separated from her alcoholic ex-husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell) and is raising a young child. Annie has been having an affair with Nate (Nicky Katt), who’s married to Barb (Amy Sedaris) who works with Annie at a local Chinese restaurant.  Also working at this restaurant is Arthur Parkinson (Michael Angarano), a teenage busboy who Annie used to babysit when he was a child.  Arthur has recently befriended Lila (Olivia Thirlby), the new girl in school who is something of a free spirit.  Arthur’s own family is going through a tough divorce and he is finding himself trying to find a balance between his two parents.  

            That’s a lot of characters, a lot to set up, and a lot to introduce.  This is the biggest challenge Green faces with this film, he has to introduce all that in a skillful way before he moves on with the main story which I’m reluctant to give away.  I’m not really sure Green is ever able to overcome this challenge.  Anyone who’s seen previous films from David Gordon Green knows that he works at a slow, natural pace and by the time everything is set up there really isn’t much time for the main story to unfold.  This probably wasn’t a problem in Stewart O’Nan novel this film is adapted from, but screen time is more important that page count. 

Additionally the two sides of the story always seem a bit uneven, the Arthur Parkinson character feels somewhat tangential to the story and if he was removed from the film it would have little effect on Annie’s story, while the reverse is not true.  I haven’t read the O’Nan novel, but I have a hunch that it is largely about the Arthur character and his reactions to what happens to Annie, the movie however is not.  The film does not center on a single perspective but shows all the events equally.  Annie has more screen time simply because she is involved in more external action and her story dominates the film more so than Arthur. 

Of course none of these flaws make themselves known while actually watching the film, much like other David Gordon Green films, this is feels really good while it’s being watched even if it doesn’t necessarily add up to the sun of its part.  The film is so well made, so interesting that simply going along for the ride is enough of an experience to recommend the film. 

The acting ensemble here is really great.  Kate Beckinsale gives the performance of her career here as Annie, she’s an actress who has found herself in a lot of trashy Hollywood films, but this film proves that she has a real talent.  Michael Angarano is also quite good, I think he may have a bright future ahead of him, as does Olivia Thirlby who had a small role in last year’s Juno.  Nicky Katt and Amy Sedaris also give good performances, but the performance that really needs to be singled out is that of Sam Rockwell.  Rockwell is one of the best character actors working today and here he’s able to take a character that easily could have been one dimensional and brought it to life in a great way.

Rockwell’s entire character is really interesting throughout the movie, our reaction to him is a case study in perception.  There’s something a bit off about him but he seems like a pretty nice, slightly quirky guy.  Annie’s fear of him and frequent dismissals of his attempts to bring the family together again seem unreasonable at first, but that’s because we don’t know him like she does.  Glenn claims to be a born again Christian, but it becomes increasingly clear that alcohol still has a lot more control over him than Jesus. 

David Gordon Green has moved beyond the Terrence Malick imitating he used to great effect in his first films, but that doesn’t mean Snow Angels is any less captivating.  The film does have a narrative structure but there is still a real patience on display, a willingness to linger and to focus on things other directors would ignore.  The technical elements are all at the top of their game; Tim Orr’s cinematography is as good as ever and the framing is great throughout. 

This all plays into the film’s ultimate success.  The story telling is so great that the film works in spite of itself.  The same could be said of many other David Gordon Green movies, the guy has a real knack for making good movies that fail to be great in interesting ways.  Someone with this much talent is bound to make something truly extraordinary eventually.  This still isn’t his magnum opus, but his filmmaking just keeps getting better.

*** out of four stars

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