Thursday, January 22, 2009

Snow Angels

A marching band practices their rendition of Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer," only to be harshly berated for their sloppy lines and playing. After a few moments, gunshots ring out in the distance. Snow Angels, David Gordon Green's fourth film, shows the writer-director still displaying his ability to condense American life into 2 hours.

He focuses on a small town, small enough where the stories all converge with one another like a Robert Altman film, though Green does not structure his film the way Altman set up his tapestries. Of all these characters, Green primarily focuses on two: Arthur (Michael Angarano), a teenager in the marching band, and Annie (Kate Beckinsale), who forms the closest thing to a center in the story. Even these two are closely connected: Annie used to babysit Arthur (and was his first crush), and now the two work together in a local diner.

If George Washington examined friendship in post-Industrial, post-racial Appalachia, Snow Angels is a brutal look into relationships in a small town, where at some point everybody ends up screwing everybody else. Seemingly everyone in the film is either divorced or headed towards one. Annie is estranged from her husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell), an unstable Born-Again recovering alcoholic who seems to be perfectly affable and normal around everyone except Annie. Meanwhile Annie sleeps with the husband of her co-worker (played by Amy Sedaris). To top it all off, Arthur's parents are going through a separation.

Into all this turmoil Arthur experience love for the first time. Not his crush on Annie, but his muted and charming romance with Lila (Olivia Thirlby), a quirky girl with a winning personality. In a film where everyone else's relationships crumble around him, Arthur finds the only glimmer of happiness to be had, made all the more touching because of Green's tenderness towards them that never dips into mawkishness.

Halfway through the film, the film takes a darker tone. Glenn discovers his wife's infidelity and returns to his violent, drunken ways. Shortly afterwards, Tara (Glenn and Annie's daughter) goes missing. Soon Green plunges the story into an entirely different direction, one akin to Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter. For his part, Green handles the massive shift in direction as if nothing happened at all.

In the latter half Rockwell and Beckinsale really come alive, moving from broken, hollow people into characters vibrant in their rage and grief. The more Glenn sinks into alcoholism and religious fanaticism the more Annie grows to match him, and both actors bring their A-games. Rockwell in particular resonates; his violent reactions to the more horrifying events are moving, misguided and sinister as they may be.
Written and Directed by: David Gordon Green

At the end we finally discover the truth about those gunshots in the beginning, and to be honest it takes away a bit from the removed sensibility of the rest of the film. Really, the rest of the movie has been Green's baby, but here he must adhere to the book he adapted, and it just doesn't fit into his style. Yet Green pulls it back by ending on Arthur and Lila, who potentially have a future void of all the tragedies of the present, a future in which their love never dies. It's a bit sentimental, yes, but it works.

Though the two hemispheres of the story (Annie's and Arthur's) never overlap in more than superficial ways, together they form a haunting portrayal of community isolation, even in those small towns where everybody seems to know everybody. If its climax seems out of synch with the rest of the film, it's the result of the inevitable pull of the literary source on Green's separate and unique direction. That does not excuse the pieces not fitting, but neither does the film genuinely suffer for it. If nothing else, it ensures Green's place as perhaps the most humanist American director currently working, and I'll have my money in hand every time he releases a film.

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