Snow Angels is the fourth film from 32-year-old wunderkind David Gordon Green. It has been carefully adapted by Green, in a style like that of Todd Field of In the Bedroom , from a book by Stewart O’Nan. The film follows several characters as they try to make sense of their lives and relationships in the drab and frozen suburban wastes of an un-named northern state (the film was shot in Nova Scotia).
Annie, Kate Beckinsale, is a waitress at a tacky Chinese restaurant. She is recently separated from her husband, and is not doing so hot at taking care of her three-year-old daughter, while fending off barbed asides from her mother that she ought to take Glenn back.
Glenn, Sam Rockwell, is a bit of sad sack; we meet him at the sink, popping a pimple on his forehead, creating a wound that never seems to heal, much like him. He seems a nice enough guy; he obviously cares for his daughter, though he’s awkward with her. Annie hints at the back-story, though: “I’ve got enough trying to hold it together without worrying whether fragile Glenn will try to kill himself again.”
We see a little of Annie’s general lack of caution in the way she flirts with Arthur, Michael Angarano, a teenager she used to babysit, who buses tables at the restaurant; Annie can’t turn it off. That’s probably how she wound up in bed with a tattooed, mustached lout, the husband of her best friend. But it’s impossible to accept Kate Beckinsale as reckless Annie. Her clean good looks haven’t endured Annie’s heartbreaks, and no way was Glenn her first, not this complicated beauty.
The extent of Glenn’s fragility, and his death drive, continue to unfold. He’s a dry drunk, held together by a new-found, naïve Christianity. His new boss at the factory, taking a risk on Glenn, says, “Read Matthew. You are lost to the fold. But you can be found.” Glenn is the kind of man who would frighten us into condemning him if we met him later in his slide. But he sneaks in under the radar. Sam Rockwell is nothing short of brilliant in one difficult scene after another.
Director Green allows screen time for Arthur, the teenager with a crush on Annie, to develop a more realistic romance with Lila, Olivia Thirlby, who did a nice comic turn in Juno . The pairing is quirky enough to be interesting. Movies rarely get it right when they depict intimacy between high school kids, but in this one, notice which of them ducks under he sheets. We even get an abstract glimpse, from Arthur’s point of view, of his parents. These secondary stories are there, I think, to show relationships at various stages — one beginning, one ending – as refractions of the real story, Annie and Glenn. You may feel, for a time, that the film isn’t going anywhere. Hang tight.
Why is the football team called “The Red Hats”? Why is Lila’s hand covered in red paint? Why do so many people slip on the ice? What is the meaning of a dead deer? These are details in a film flush with them, and maybe they are warnings, maybe not. If warnings, they are the kind we never heed. By the third act, it finally dawns on us that each scene in the film has been setting up the board; and now that we know the name of the game, the game is playing the players, and has already been lost. All that’s left is to watch the final, inevitable moves with terrible understanding and pity. Maybe the film will help you extend that pity, the next time you read about a domestic disaster in the news. Though the film offers the cold comfort that life goes on, after all, it’s parting shot – a character plaintively calling for a dog that’s never coming back — is like a fishhook in the flesh, tugging us back to face the collateral damage.
Reviewing Snow Angels for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.