Thursday, March 20, 2008


David Gordon Green has made four feature films, each of which have been excellent and rather perfect in their own ways. GEORGE WASHINGTON, his startling, award-winning debut, announced a new, major voice in independent cinema. His second outing, ALL THE REAL GIRLS, won a special jury prize at Sundance, and stands as one of the very best depictions of young love ever captured on film; it also displayed a Terrence Malick-esque fascination with incorporating nature into his narrative. His third film, the extremely underrated UNDERTOW, was a deep-South, gothic thriller that was essentially a riff on NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, and was nothing like his first two pictures; it’s a riveting, nasty piece of work. Now, with SNOW ANGELS, which represents his finest film so far, Green has crafted a devastating, draining, and often touching portrait of small town malaise in the dead of winter. Like its gloomy skies and snowy landscape, the emotionally conflicted characters caught in the middle of SNOW ANGELS represent life at its most random, natural, and tragic. Working from his first adaptation (the film is based on Stewart O’Nan’s novel), Green is able to capture the small, subtle moments that his work has always excelled at depicting. Yet he’s also able to get “big” for the first time, with bravura, Oscar-worthy performances from Sam Rockwell (someone give this guy the credit he deserves please) and Kate Beckinsale (who I never thought could make me cry). And by the time the powerful yet inevitable ending sweeps over the screen, you’ll be speechless from tension and expectation.

The film is structured in an interesting way. Over the dryly humorous opening scenes of a high school band practicing marching formation, two gun shots can be heard, somewhere in the distance. Nobody knows what’s happened but it’s obvious something bad has occurred. We then cut back “a few weeks earlier,” which results in a hanging sense of dread that permeates the entire picture; the audience knows that something terrible is on the horizon, yet, there is a story to be told first. This dramatic framing device, while manipulative, serves SNOW ANGELS quite well, as it creates an extra level of unease that is upped even further by the unpredictability of the story’s characters. You definitely get the sense that this material was a novel, as the tone of the film jumps around (never sloppily, however), and the point-of-view changes a few times. By turns touching, oddly humorous, and deeply sad, SNOW ANGELS is a film that’s tough to classify.

SNOW ANGELS has a layered, detailed plot, with one major element coming as a total surprise, which I will allow you to discover for yourself as it’s been shied away from in the trailers and not discussed in any other reviews I have read. Annie (Beckinsale) has separated from her unstable husband Glenn (Rockwell) after a rocky marriage; they have a cute but needy four-year-old daughter, Tara (Grace Hudson), who lives with Annie. Annie is a waitress at a local Chinese restaurant; her close friend Barb (a surprisingly dramatically effective Amy Sedaris) works with her but doesn’t know that Annie is sleeping with her buffoonish husband Nate, perfectly played by Nicky Katt, who is becoming a master scene-stealer. Another employee of the restaurant is Arthur (Michael Angarano), a slightly awkward teenager who has had a crush on Annie ever since she babysat for him when he was a little kid. Arthur’s parents are going through a divorce; he’s also just met a new girl (the wonderful Olivia Thirlby, recently seen in JUNO) in school who quickly becomes his girlfriend. The lives and fates of all of these people intersect over the course of the film, which is built upon the knowledge that a tragic event is going to occur by the finale.

The performances are all terrific, with Rockwell delivering yet another measured, detailed performance. In films as diverse as CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND, QALAXY QUEST, MATCHSTICK MEN and THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, Rockwell has shown an uncanny ability to slip into his role with a devilish charm and a unique brand of wit. Here, in his most dramatic piece of acting yet, he explodes on screen with intense anger, frustration, and sense of failure; he’s a father and husband on his last legs, both emotionally, and spiritually (he clings to his born-again Christian stature as a way of excusing himself from the terrible things he’s done). Beckinsale, who up till this point has registered solely as “the hot chick in black leather pants from the UNDERWORLD movies” in my book, was unbelievably effective in a role that’s not necessarily up her alley. Looking as plain and as every-day as possible (she’ll still be beautiful no matter how much make-up artists try to make her ugly), Beckinsale comfortably slides into her role of an anguished woman pushed to her limits. The scenes between Annie and Glenn have an intensity that recalls some of moments of character interplay in last year’s film LITTLE CHILDREN. And Angarano, an actor new to me, stuck a wonderful balance between clumsy high-school kid and suave outsider; it’s easy to see why someone like Lila might take a shine to him. And it must be noted that their tender love scene is yet another prime example of how Green understands, as a writer and director, how young people react to one another in romantic situations.

SNOW ANGELS is certainly a bleak, dark film, and I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re easily upset by cinematic tragedy and tough stories about familial dysfunction. Working again with his regular cinematographer Tim Orr, Green gives his film a snowy, cold atmosphere, which works in perfect tandem with the story’s themes of anxiety and desperation. But I just want to note that for all of the unpleasant things that pop up in the narrative of SNOW ANGELS, the film does brim with a sense of honest humor and genuine insight into the characters at hand. When the film starts, you feel like you already know these characters; that’s a filmmaking quality that all of Green’s films share. He’s a naturalist, a storyteller interested in real emotions and honest situations. His next film, this summer’s stoner-comedy THE PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (coming from the Judd Apatow comedy factory), promises to be a real departure for Green in many ways. I just hope that his interest in complex themes carries over into his first studio project. If not, the independent world will surely have him back whenever he’s ready. SNOW ANGELS, so far, is the best film of 2008.

1 comment:

Wayne said...

This sounds fantastic. Love David Gordon Green.