Saturday, March 01, 2008

Snow Angels

Somehow, I managed to get in, along with my brother and our fellow Mahooligan Raj, to the premiere of David Gorden Green's Snow Angels at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood the other night. Not sure how it happened...we only bought tickets two days in advance, and then got to watch the film with luminaries including Green, Kate Beckinsale, director Mark Freiburger and (I'm pretty sure) Ryan Gosling. They even had free booze and appetizers outside afterwards.

There was some question, after it debuted at last year's Sundance festival, about whether or not Snow Angels would ever merit a theatrical release. (It wasn't picked up immediately, as you'd expect for a film from a well-regarded director starring Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale.) I understand the reluctance on the part of the studios to take a gamble on this. In addition to being a somber story of failure, loss and regret, it's also probably Green's most underwhelming effort to date. (Warner Independent eventually jumped in and will release the film in major U.S. cities later this month).

That by no means makes it a bad movie. David Gordon Green has a ridiculous track record thus far. His debut, George Washington, may be one of the most audacious, accomplished first films I have ever seen. Since that, he's helmed the beautifully rendered, lyrical romance All the Real Girls and the idiosyncratic Night of the Hunter riff Undertow. (This last film is woefully underrated, available on DVD and features an AMAZING performance from Josh Lucas. Trust me...Netflix it...)

So it's not exactly comparing Snow Angels to Norbit or anything when I say it felt kind of uncharacteristic for Green. Where his films tend to be gracefully composed, Snow Angels is choppy. Where his films tend to have intricately layered narratives, revealing new textures and details on repeat viewings, Snow Angels feels sort of incomplete and half-formed. That doesn't mean it isn't still worth watching or well done. It's just not exactly George Washington. Few films are.

Based on a novel by Stewart O'Nan, the film follows the interlocking stories of three couples in a small, snowbound American town. High school band geek Arthur Parkinson (Michael Angarano) has caught the eye of the pretty, unconventional new girl at school (Olivia Thirlby, who played Juno's best friend) and together they embark on a sweetly uncertain first romance. Meanwhile, Arthur's father (Griffin Dunne) is leaving his mother (Jeanetta Arnette) for another woman.

Arthur works at a local Chinese restaurant with Annie (Kate Beckinsale), who used to babysit for him years ago. Annie's in the process of divorcing Glen (Sam Rockwell), who's desperate to get back into her life and to prove he can be a good father to their toddler, Tara.

Thematically, putting these stories together in one film makes some amount of sense. We're seeing three different periods in the life of a love affair collide in every sequence. Arthur and Lila experience the heady thrill of a first kiss in the same moment that Annie and Glen suffer through a marriage that has worn out its welcome, with Arthur's parents standing in for the uncertain present moment itself. They're asking out loud the questions that may only be vague thoughts in the back of their son's mind as he cavorts with his first girlfriend, the same questions Glen has asked Annie, only to refuse to hear her answers.

In practice, however, Green (who wrote the screenplay as well as directed) doesn't find a way to tie all of his threads together. In Crime and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen employs a somewhat similar structure, following the interlocking stories of a variety of acquaintances, all thematically but not narratively related. However, he has a real powerhouse final sequence that brings all the characters together (physically) and ties all of their stories together (emotionally and thematically).

Green desperately needs a scene like this, and doesn't have one. We're left with three conclusions, but no closure.

It's a shame that the film doesn't resonate more deeply, because it's impeccably put together, just as you'd expect from DGG.

The performances are across-the-board terrific, with all of the leads doing career-highlight-type work. I'm pretty much always a fan of Rockwell's performances, but he's particularly strong in Snow Angels. If it were going to open later in the year, I'd consider him a possible award contender. He tends to play a certain type of guy - eccentric, unpredictable, full of shit - and Glen fits that mold, but there's a rawness and a desperation to this character that's so realistic, it's almost painful to watch. (One scene that's sure to be a subject of post-film conversation and analysis finds Glen, in an alcoholic stupor, dancing with some old drunks in a dive bar. It's an unflinching look at a man hitting rock bottom.)

Beckinsale and Thirlby, and Amy Sedaris in a relatively small role as Annie and Arthur's chatty co-worker, are the other standouts, but the whole cast is pretty terrific. (Manhunter star Tom Noonan shows up in a brief, very funny role as the Marching Band instructor.)

Tim Orr's stark white cinematography is reminiscent of A Simple Plan and Fargo, using barren, blank landscapes to comment on the hopelessness and isolation of the characters. Several transitions cut directly from dark interior scenes to glaringly bright winter exteriors, as if to purposefully cause the viewer to blink, recoil and rub his or her eyes. This is the harsh choice presented to Glen: fester inside feeding off rage, depression and booze or face the unforgiving, demanding and judgmental world outside, where all his sins are exposed and scrutinized.

A lot of talented people did a lot of great work on Snow Angels, so it's a pretty good movie with some things to say and some genuinely compelling individual scenes. But it's various moments don't add up to an entirely coherent whole, and I doubt most audiences will care to invest the time and patience to appreciate such a dour experience.

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