(No longer in theaters)
Dan Lindau, R. Paul Miller, Lisa Muskat, Cami Taylor
Warner Independent Pictures
Mar 7, 2008
A great filmmaker makes you want to get on his or her wavelength even if it means adjusting your expectations from scene to scene. You’re supposed to work at it— to make imaginative leaps that are sometimes a challenge. But David Gordon Green’s wavelength has always been beyond even my most athletic imaginative leaps. His acclaimed debut George Washington has a wrenching last act, but much of it is a strange and estranging blend of the amateurish and the slick—a kind of cinematic dyslexia in which nothing quite fits. Scene by scene his new film, Snow Angels, isn’t terrible. Parts of it are amusing, and there are wintry images that eat into the mind. But it’s one of the most disjunctive things I’ve ever sat through.
Green has adapted a novel by Stewart O’Nan that, no matter what you think of it, works on its own suffocating terms. A western-Pennsylvania man named Arthur remembers the murder of a former babysitter he had a huge crush on—an event that happened around the same time his parents split up and he and his mom had to move from a house to a squalid apartment complex. The novel is steeped in working-class fatalism—it moves toward its two climaxes (the accidental death of a little girl, the killing of Annie) in a way that critics like to call “inexorable.”
Green doesn’t want to saddle these characters with a fat load of inexorability, and the film has none of the novel’s pall. That’s good—to a point. What isn’t good is that at times he seems to think he’s making an ensemble comedy about several different estranged couples, some funny, some sad, and the fizz and buffoonishness never begin to mesh with the primal horror of the central events. The socioeconomic bracket has been bumped up a notch, and Annie is played by the British Kate Beckinsale, who is touchingly unaffected, but whose lissome body and unlined face don’t even suggest the pain of doing badly on her “O” levels, let alone trying to get by as a single mom with an unstable ex-husband. As that husband, Glenn, Sam Rockwell tries not to come off like too much of an Actor—this kind of indie regional moviemaking wears its amateurishness like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval—but the script doesn’t give him much to play, and he has great comic timing, so he becomes a lovable clown. Annie and young Arthur (Michael Angarano) work at a Chinese restaurant alongside Barb, played by Amy Sedaris, who bristles with comic energy. Nicky Katt plays her narcissistic husband and Annie’s lover—he’s hilariously self-involved. If Green had thrown away the death of a 4-year-old and the murder-suicide that now comes from nowhere, he might have had the beginnings of something.
You can’t accuse Green of laying back. He uses a jiggly handheld camera in scenes where a static one would do, and sometimes the camera travels with the actors and then keeps traveling, leaving them behind. (I wanted to reach up and yank it back.) The ghastly, the funny, the tragic, the surreal—it’s all part of life’s rich tapestry, right? Maybe. But Snow Angels is a hopelessly addled weave.