Alex (Alan Rickman) first appears in Snow Cake aboard a plane. Gazing out the window, he embodies an obvious contradiction, in motion and still at the same time. Just released from prison (“I killed a man” is his only account of what happened, until film’s end when confessions are in order), he’s headed to Winnipeg. Once on the ground, his loneliness looks terminal, until he meets the charmingly eccentric, purple-haired Vivienne (Emily Hampshire) at a truck stop. “You look like a guy who needs to talk,” she says, so sagely. At this point, Alex’s course is changed.
Alex’s needs are many: while Rickman’s understated performance hints at them, the movie tends to shout them out. Vivienne appears to be a kind of answer: an aspiring writer, she announces that she has a title for her unstarted tome (“The Bleeding Child Within”), though she’s not sure yet “what particular area of human pain or misery I’m going to focus it on.” Apparently familiar with many areas, she’s still young enough that she imagines happy endings, and as she pushes through Alex’s tetchiness, she even inspires him to brief laughter. At which point a car accident (not Alex’s fault) leaves her dead and him feeling emotionally liable.
In order to make amends, of some kind, Alex drives to Vivienne’s home in Wawa, where he meets her mother Linda (Sigourney Weaver), a high-functioning autistic adult who stocks shelves in the local supermarket, loves jumping on her backyard trampoline, and accepts Vivienne’s death without question. It bothers Alex that she shows more upset when he walks into her kitchen without permission than when she talks about her lost daughter: “I’m very busy,” she says on his arrival, “And I don’t do social.” But Linda — whose last name is, significantly, “Freeman” — proves one of those movie-made models for childlike innocence and purity of feeling. How lucky for Alex that he’s arrived at her doorstep, bearing enough grief for both of them and, though he’d never admit it, seeking exactly the guidance she provides.
Snow Cake takes its time making this point, and it does so more than once. Angry and confused and still reeling from the accident, Alex is alternately impatient with Linda and with himself. While he understands her behavior, he also resents her serenity and, no small thing, finds her annoying. She adores the cheap plastic “sparklies” he’s delivered (a last gift from Vivienne), losing herself in their effects for long moments while Alex looks on. “Vivienne wanted to be a writer,” asserts Linda. “She said she would always try to get a ride with the loneliest looking character because they have the best stories.” Thus labeled, Alex hangs his head. “I don’t have a problem with you,” Linda persists, “because you gave Vivienne a lift and you brought me my sparklies.” Ah well.
When Linda says, “I won’t see Vivienne again. You won’t see Vivienne again… We all have to get over it,” Alex predictably shakes his head in wonder, realizing the profundity of her words while also clinging to his own sense of wisdom, maturity, and responsibility. He agrees to stay for a few days, to help arrange the funeral and — very important to Linda, who has, the film repeats, moved on — to take out the garbage on Tuesday: this is Vivienne’s job, of course, which means Alex feels her loss more acutely, poor him.
This means he can take time to realize the full impact of Linda’s gift, as well as meet her neighbors, including Maggie (Carrie-Anne Moss). She’s another sort of “free spirit,” that is, a divorcee who’s content to have sex without commitment (“So, Mr. Snowdrifter,” she greets him, “What’s your story?”). When he realizes that Maggie is not, as Linda has asserted, a prostitute, Alex achieves another insight: some ambiguities, not understood by the black-or-white-thinking Linda, are worth savoring. His affair with Maggie offers another sort of “purity,” no obligations or expectations, only generosity.
All these clichés tend to overwhelm the film’s more interesting questions about the pressures of social connections and conventions. “I don’t know how I’ll feel in half an hour,” says Linda by way of explaining what seems ungracious behavior in front of yet another neighbor, so wrapped up in her notion of ritual that she doesn’t take into account any of Linda’s specific needs. “I only know how I feel now.” Amen to that, but really, you get it the first time you see it in Snow Cake (titled for the simple treat — literally made of snow — that pleases Linda immeasurably).
As much as Alex denies it, he’s looking to rituals for solace, rather than comprehending the moment as Linda does. “I’d like you to put your arms around me and squeeze me really hard,” she tells him. “But don’t touch me with your hands.” The precision of the request, and the ease with which he can fulfill it, are almost overwhelming. This single moment — their faces awkward and rapturous, disconnected but also on a wavelength at last — is in fact quite lovely.
But the movie can’t leave well enough alone. With too much plinky piano and a scene that clumsily literalizes Linda’s “vision” (she dances with the dead Vivienne against an imaginary white background), Snow Cake is at once too obvious and too earnest. While this doesn’t quite undermine Weaver’s precise performance, it does suggest that Linda’s understanding of the world remains elusive.