Mar 6, 2008

On Snow Angels

Although it doesn’t bludgeon you like the sledgehammer Tom Noonan’s grave bandleader references in its opening scene, David Gordon Green’s devastating new picture Snow Angels, the fourth feature from this southern prodigy and his pack of NCSA alums, packs quite a wallop. Working outside of his native region for the first time, Mr. Green delivers a full course cinematic meal in the form of an altogether triumphant adaptation of Stewart O’Nan acclaimed novel, one that develops into a thoroughly unforgiving wintertime tragedy leavened with bursts of humor and grace, a complex film about how a terrible accident and its bloody aftermath affect a community of middle class Western Pennsylvanians. Mr. Green works on a broad social canvass for the first time while trading in rich humor and brutal emotional and physical violence, often simultaneously, with the ease and self-assurance of a director twice his age. It’s a work that matches the formal ambition of his earlier films, but trumps them with its unshakable emotional impact, narrative thrust and authenticity. It’ll break your heart and leave you hungering for more.

Glenn (Sam Rockwell, in the best performance of an already magnificent career) has recently been released from an institutional stay following a suicide attempt. He’s an unstable but pathologically well meaning born again Christian of startling fragility. Glenn desperately clings to the no longer requited love he holds for his wife Annie (Kate Beckinsale), a waitress at a local Chinese restaurant whose abandonment provoked the failed suicide. She’s a moody, largely dissatisfied woman for whom every man has been a failure and who seems to be drowning in the responsibilities of work and home. Prone to nasty spouts with her mother, newly released husband and young child, she’s also become involved in a clandestine affair with Nate (Nicky Katt), the husband of her co-worker and best friend Barb (Amy Sedaris). She manages to carry on well with Arthur (Michael Angarano), a younger co-worker whom she once babysat, now a shaggy haired member of the local high school band whose parents (Griffin Dunne and Jeanetta Arnette) are in the process of splitting up and who falls into the orbit of a charming young photographer (Olivia Thirlby), one who quickly takes a romantic interest in him that he doesn't seem to notice.

Green uses these interweaving stories as a prism to glimpse men, women and children at vastly different stages of their couplings. In Mr. Green’s world, it’s the young people who can transcend our limited emotional capabilities, but who nonetheless, like everyone else in the film (and the world for that matter), struggle with what and who is most important to them and how to hold on to that which matters. With a stunning amount of empathy, Mr. Green carries this material into the depths of lurid melodrama without making a single beat in the film ring false.

To synopsize further would be to risk unearthing spoilers, but there will be blood as the community will be stricken by a senseless, accidental death that leads to an even more grisly occurrence. Not that lurid representations particularly interest Mr. Green or his gifted cinematographer Tim Orr; they often choose to pan or dolly away from small gestures, bits of dialogue and acts of brutal violence alike in a manner that is altogether pleasing and appropriate, the world beyond the frame clearly larger than the individuals encumbered by it.

That aesthetic conceit is not the only thing the film shares with Atom Egoyan’s magisterial The Sweet Hereafter. This film, with its multi-strand, largely chronological storytelling, resembles Mr. Egoyan’s film in both texture and thematic concern, but sings with a tempo and buoyancy the other film doesn’t know the notes for. Much of that buoyancy, despite the thorny subject matter, is supplied by the universally outstanding cast, especially Mr. Rockwell, who delivers nothing short of shattering work, the type of performance than in a grander age of American cinema, namely the 1970s, would have been an iconic one, and is surely one of the best I’ve ever seen.

Dunne, Sedaris and Katt provide able support for the leads, but it’s the pair of dynamic young actors who play the young couple, Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby, who give the film its hopeful sparks, creating a high school courtship whose playful awkwardness contains not a false note. Mr. Green seems to be having the most fun when he’s in the presence of this pair and one isn’t at a loss for why; both actors are incredibly appealing and, right on the heels of her scene stealing performance in last year’s little indie that could, Thirlby has quickly become one of the most interesting young actresses around, even if she’s clearly not in high school anymore.

Mr. Green has always and openly borne the weight of his influences. George Washington was clearly the product of someone who had digested his share of Terrence Malick and Charles Burnett. One could pick much worse aesthetic models than the legacies of those two gentlemen, but in his new film one of the most exciting American directorial talents to emerge in the last decade seems to have fully matured and found his own voice outside of his home turf. While the film doesn’t contain the complicated genre pastiche of Undertow or the exhilarating passages of near pure cinema found in George Washington, his accomplishment here is larger and one only a fully formed auteur could muster.