Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Small Town Misery: Snow Angels (2006)

David Gordon Green occupies a unique place in American film as one of the preeminent documentarians of the frustrations and triumphs of small town life. 2006’s Snow Angels, made before his commercial turn as the director of Pineapple Express, has been described by many as the perfect synthesis of the kind of low-key, somber filmmaking style that Green has been cultivating since his feature film debut George Washington in 2000. The film’s biggest asset is the unbelievable depth of its cast, which features Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell, along with an unparalleled group of supporting players that includes Griffin Dunne, Nicky Katt, Olivia Thirlby, Tom Noonan, Amy Sedaris (in a serious role!) and the relatively unknown Michael Angarano in what should be a star-making performance. Coupled with the dependable fluidness of Green’s direction (he garners a lot of comparisons to Terrence Malick), and the film’s source material, a celebrated novel by Stewart O’Nan, you might expect something exceptional, but Snow Angels, though occasionally engaging and often heartbreaking, never manages to be more than just the sum of its parts. There is a lot worth liking here, but by the time it was over, I had the nagging feeling that this was one of the most needlessly manipulative, frustratingly uneven films I’d seen in some time.

Which is not to say it doesn’t have its share of good scenes. Green’s unconventional approach in the early running is to tell his story using a collection of short but often memorable vignettes (few scenes last longer than a minute or two), and these help to set things up rather nicely. We meet Annie Marchand (Beckinsale), a waitress in a small, unnamed northern town, and her estranged husband Glenn (Rockwell), an unstable alcoholic and born-again Christian who’s futilely trying to mend their marriage and reconnect with their baby daughter. Their story is mirrored with that of Arthur Parkinson (Angarano), a retiring high school student whose parents’ (Dunne and Jeanetta Arnette) marriage is on the rocks. Arthur works with Annie at a Chinese restaurant, and we learn early on that she used to babysit him as a child. Green works in these small connections between characters throughout the story, helping to establish how people’s fates are tied together in a small town, and in its first half the film works as a clever character piece. We see the contrasts in Annie and Glenn’s young and struggling marriage with that of Arthur’s parents, and when Arthur begins dating a new student at his school (Olivia Thirlby, doing a lot with a little as she did in The Wackness) the film’s narrative becomes effectively triangulated, following these three relationships of people all at different stages in their lives.

The problem is that this triangulation is about as complex as things get. After all the major characters are set up, Green has nowhere to take them but straight down, and in its second half the plot of Snow Angels devolves into presenting one devastating tragedy after another. This is a common problem with indie films in general, which often seem to substitute unrelenting misery and pain for seriousness and substance, as though only a downbeat story can have meaning. Green seems as intent on manufacturing sadness as your average Hollywood film is with happiness, and beyond learning that they're dejected we never get much illumination on who any character is or why they do what they do. (Rockwell’s Glenn is the only exception, and that’s just because he’s constantly getting drunk and listing out his problems to anyone who will listen). I’ve always been less a fan of Green’s own films than of those he’s produced (Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories) or seemingly influenced (Ray McKinnon’s severely underrated Chrystal), and I’m starting to think that his biggest problem is that he’s too cerebral for his own good, to the point that his movies always seem as though they would have been better served as novels. He does the best he can to hint at depth through camerawork and mood, but his audience can only be expected to fill in the gaps for so long, and the end result is that everything he does ends up being disquieting but never meaningful. Snow Angles is actually based on a book, which I haven’t read, but I get the impression that if we could get inside the character’s heads a little more then everything would pack the punch that Green thinks it does. As it stands, we just get a number of shots of people giving really pained, pensive looks, trying their damndest to look interesting.

Still, to the cast’s credit, I can’t imagine anyone handling the material much better. The acting here is universally good, especially Beckinsale and Rockwell as the two leads. Beckinsale’s performance has been polarizing. Several critics have said that she is too pretty, too cosmopolitan to convincingly pull of the role of a small town mom, but I think she succeeds rather admirably in playing the role of a woman trying to do the best with the cards that life’s dealt her. For his part, it seems like Rockwell has finally found a role where all his capital-A Acting seems to work. For once, all his nervous twitches and facial tics seem at home in the character he’s playing, and he does a good job at bringing a tough character to life. Similarly, Angarano is near-perfect as Arthur, and the budding romance he and Thirlby have is exceedingly convincing, and one of the few bright spots in the film’s second half. It’s in these little details that Green’s promise as a director is most visible. He includes a number of small, unconventional scenes that prove to be surprisingly moving. One of my favorites was a dialogue-free sequence in a bar where Glenn, drunk and grieving, dances with a couple of winos. On its surface it’s unspectacular, but Green is wise to leave the camera rolling and let the scene breathe, and Rockwell is able to sell it and make it one of the better moments in the film. Green does have a gift for understanding the rhythms and oddities of normal, everyday speech. He knows just when to cut to a close-up of an actor’s hands or let a line of dialogue be cut short, and much like his hero Terrence Malick, he knows how to imbue inanimate objects and small glances with uncommon amounts dramatic meaning.

But it's this same sensitivity and Green's penchant for melancholy that ultimately weighs Snow Angels down. It’s not even the dourness that is the problem, but the unrelenting conviction Green seems to have in presenting it and the overall lack of justification for it. David Gordon Green is undoubtedly a talented filmmaker, and in this film he presents us with some sequences of unparalleled beauty that speak to the complexities of human behavior and the trials of everyday life, but somehow it all feels like a cheat. Snow Angels is a film steeped in misery, and when you get to the end of such a film you expect the director to have reached, or at least broached, some semblance of a point (watch Tarkovsky’s Stalker for a good example). That never materializes here, and simply writing the film off as a character study or a mosaic of small town life would be giving it too much credit. Ultimately, the only thing this movie is for sure is a drag. An entrancing, sometimes interesting drag, sure, but a drag all the same.

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