Snow Angels

"Oh, the weather outside is frightful," but my dear,
this movie is anything but delightful.


Usually in film, if you see a gun in the first act, you know it will go off in the third. In Snow Angels, after a deceptively innocent and yet subtly tense beginning as the faculty leader of a high school marching band tries to engage his group by asking them if they have a sledgehammer in their heart to use while playing “Sledgehammer,” two gunshots ring out in the distance and stop everyone cold. Since young teenage Arthur (Forbidden Kingdom’s Michael Angarano) and his adorable photography student girlfriend Lila (Juno’s Olivia Thirlby) are present and accounted for from the start, we know they’re safe. But the question then becomes who and what has occurred in their seemingly normal, small community.

Helping to establish the film’s ominous tone aside from the sound of the shots themselves, All the Real Girls director David Gordon Green and his incredibly talented collaborative cinematographer Tim Orr (Choke) present the film’s title amidst a black background. Then, working its way into the tale as a nearly cinematic equivalent of a chamber piece of music, they introduce us to the setting with a series of innocuous imagery depicting the town as though it could be anywhere in these United States as residents go about their daily lives and we meet its incredibly small cast of characters.

In doing so, we’re driven into the past as Snow Angels’ narrative moves several weeks earlier. Yet a morbid shadow of doom lurks over the setting’s inhabitants first with Arthur’s unhappily married parents (Jeanette Arnette and Griffin Dunne) until the film fixates on the characters we instinctively know will be present in the deadly conclusion. Unfortunately, the film avoids the classical rules of Shakespeare in foreshadowing the tragedy by naming the character(s) who will perish in the Bard’s plays by listing them in the title but from the moment we first glimpse Kate Beckinsale’s struggling blue collar mom, Annie, and her estranged, off-balance husband, Glenn (Sam Rockwell), we get the sense that they will be the ones marching towards an inevitable death. And if it’s not their own, we realize it will be someone nearest to them. While the film’s trailer leads us in one direction, our director (who adapted the screenplay from Stewart O’Nan’s novel for three years for another filmmaker before he ultimately helmed the project himself), takes us in quite another.

Another independent filmmaking exercise in gloomy dysfunction, the actors are all top-notch and it’s their individual work that keeps us watching, even though we’re never entirely convinced any of the lead characters are worth caring about which—while it normally wouldn’t be a problem as cinema always offers its fair share of flawed heroes and surprisingly humane villains—in this film, it makes the final impact seem less provocative than the director had hoped.

As the primary caregiver to her toddler daughter, Beckinsale’s Annie works as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant opposite Arthur, whom she used to babysit when he was younger (which leads to some odd, flirtatious conversations as we realize the extent of Arthur’s previous crush on his old babysitter). However, while Arthur soon begins to fall for the geeky yet earnest new girl in school, Lila, Annie’s romantic life is far more unconventional as we discover her meeting the husband of her best friend and coworker Barb (Amy Sedaris) in a sleazy motel for frequent illicit trysts as one of the many items on her to-do list alongside shopping for her elderly mother.

While extramarital affairs always seem to end badly, Annie’s seems destined to explode by way of the match in Snow Angels, who is introduced fairly early on when we become acquainted with Rockwell’s Glenn. A recovering alcoholic turned ultra-devout born-again Christian, the mentally unstable Glenn who is temporarily residing with his parents, repeatedly tries to get back together with his ex, from taking his daughter for the day to arriving at Annie’s unexpectedly. When he grows increasingly obsessive and also learns of her affair, we sense that it’s only a matter of time before all of their lives intersect in a devastating showdown yet I wasn’t expecting the utter level of hellishly disturbing depression the film had in store for the audience as it kicks us hard roughly one hour in before careening towards its inevitable yet nonetheless, overwhelmingly bleak ending that puts us down for the count.

Recently released on a DVD formatted so that viewers can choose to watch it in either its original theatrical widescreen version or the television-formatted fullscreen along with various language options, it's the type of film that should come complete with a pre-approved prescription for the strongest anti-depressant on the market since essentially it is Sophie’s Choice meets In the Bedroom. Breathtakingly photographed by Tim Orr, most notably in a final scene involving the marching band as snow begins to fall, the film is saved by its actors. This is especially due to the fearless nature of Sam Rockwell who is no stranger to taking on the most awful roles imaginable and offering a surprising level of humanity to each. Yet in the end-- other than mere pity for what had happened-- I couldn’t bring myself to become that emotionally involved with such a self-involved female protagonist as the one penned for the otherwise talented Beckinsale.

And ultimately, I thought that, like Margot at the Wedding and The Savages, it was yet another indulgent indie about characters with whom we not only do not want to spend any time with in reality, but are even less interested in seeing on film. Although it’s infinitely better than the misanthropic and overwhelmingly dejecting Blindness, watching both of these films in the same week, let alone the same month, damn near turned this reviewer off film… at least for a day or so.

Who’s ready for a comedy? Obviously director David Gordon Green and Tim Orr were as well-- which may explain their choice to follow up Snow Angels with Seth Rogen and James Franco’s stoner comedy, Pineapple Express. For, when it comes to dealing with Snow, to quote Bob Dylan, "everybody must get stoned," yet I think this one will send most reaching for Prozac.