Is there really any surprise left in the story of a small town racked by tragedy? Would something like Blue Velvet, or David Gordon Green’s George Washington really resonate today? The last movie to try was Todd Field’s fantastic Little Children. While poised to be an awards season hit, it was ignored by critics and barely made a box office dent. While marketing and studio support can easily be blamed, audiences clearly didn’t want to take another trip down sad suburban lanes. Now Green has returned with yet another look at how the problems of people spiral into events of Earth shattering consequence. And up until the final ten minutes, Snow Angels is some very powerful stuff.
One winter’s afternoon, in a small Pennsylvanian burg, the sound of gunshots fills the air. It halts band practice, where high school kid Arthur Parkinson is playing the trombone. It resonates across the football field, where his new girlfriend Lila is standing by, taking photos. It travels across town, where Arthur’s separated parents continue their blame game, as do waitress Barb and her wandering husband, Nate.
As the last echo careens off a distance source, all thoughts turn to recent events. Little Tara Marchand went missing a few weeks before, and angry parents Glenn and Annie took it very hard. Now, some suspect the tragedy has escalated beyond a tiny child and a horrible accident. Glenn was never that stable to begin with, and Annie’s done nothing by spurn and sour his feelings. The terrifying sound might just be their issues - adultery, attempted suicide, alcoholism, abandonment - coming to a head. It might be something much worse.
It’s really a shame that Snow Angels stumbles when it does. It’s not like we can’t see it coming, however. Green, who tends to underplay everything with a deliberateness that borders on the unbelievable, shows a striking lack of restraint through most of the movie. Whenever Sam Rockwell’s failure in flux character Glenn first appears onscreen, we hope his newfound religious fundamentalism will be his only obvious quirk. By the time the actor grabs a gun and starts looking for Kate Beckinsale, we’re pining for the previous piousness.
It’s not that Rockwell is bad in the role, or too mannered in what he’s trying to accomplish. It’s just that Green has pitched the rest of his narrative so down on the dour temperament key that larger than life plays like out of this world. We hold little compassion for Glenn, never understand his numerous tantrums, traumas, or transformations, and simply wait for the mechanical movie making beats to take over and get us to the foreshadowed finale (the open sequence ends with a punctuation of gunfire after all).
And Beckinsdale is no prize either. Playing white trash and trampy may be a stretch for this striking UK beauty, but again, it’s not the performance that throws us. Instead, we are constantly taken by how selfish, manipulative, and just plain unlikable Annie is. She’s like the character played by Amy Ryan in Ben Affleck’s brilliant Gone Baby Gone, except without the drug problem or the pathos.
In Snow Angels, most of Annie’s actions are inexcusable. Her affair with a coworker’s wise-ass male nurse husband feels forced, the plot point predicament like something out of a dime store detective novel. When she needs our empathy, we could honestly care less, and there is never a mea culpa where she confesses to being a stone cold, conniving witch. Instead, Rockwell’s unclear history is supposed to excuse her actions. It doesn’t work.
Luckily, the rest of Snow Angels does. The material with Michael Angarano plays out perfectly, his flirtation with Annie never pushed, his eventual hook up with Lila, a girl more in line with his age and ideals, has a breezy, offbeat grace. The boy’s backstory, including a pair of feuding parents (Griffin Dunne and Jeanneta Arnette) has little weight, but it’s really not necessary. Angarano carries everything he needs with him, and the results give the arc a real sense of purpose.
There are also some sensational supporting elements that keep us engaged. Comedian Amy Sedaris may be the last person you’d picture playing a wounded, whiny small town waitress, but her turn as Barb is beautifully realized. Similarly, little Grace Hudson is the perfect child star antidote as Glenn and Annie’s daughter Tara. While one imagines that most of her scenes were the result of extended improvisation, she never comes across as Dakota Fanning phony or, God forbid, Quinn Cummings cloying.
Maybe it’s the fact that Green is going with someone else’s ideas here. Snow Angels is based on Stewart O’Nan’s novel, and the feeling of something written, not organic, is everywhere. Much of what happens here would probably come across better on the page. We recognize how minor moments can evolve into unfathomable horrors - human or otherwise - but we miss most of the internal monologues that fiction uses to flesh out these situations. Green hopes his camera and contemplative cinematography will carry us across these plot pot holes. Sadly, we struggle to see the significance.
For all its noble intentions and universal truths, Snow Angels is not a great movie. It’s not a grand movie. It’s barely a very good movie. But if taken at face value and allowed to be its earnest, overplayed self, the sense of cinematic satisfaction is fairly forceful - that is, until the shameless showboating at the end. It really does dampen an otherwise intriguing drama.