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Snow Angels

Movie Review


Published May 7, 2008 at 12:04 p.m.

You know you’re in the hands of a director who won’t be making familiar, obvious choices from the opening moments of this remarkable movie. A high school band is attempting halfheartedly to rehearse a Peter Gabriel song while marching in choreographed formation and failing comically at both. The band’s director, Mr. Chervenick, is played by Tom Noonan, an actor best remembered for his harrowing portrayal of the serial killer in 1988’s Manhunter (the picture that introduced the character of Hannibal Lecter to the world). Twenty years later his mood has, if anything, grown more sour. Apoplectic, Noonan’s character unleashes upon his students one of the strangest inspirational rants in screen history. “People,” he bellows, “do you have a sledgehammer in your heart?” Then, just when you think you’ve settled in for some kind of quirky teen comedy, two shotgun blasts ring out from the woods not far away.

Which might lead you to the conclusion that writer-director David Gordon Green’s latest is not a quirky teen comedy after all, but rather a dark, small-town tragedy propelled by themes of family dysfunction, mental breakdown, betrayal and violence. The intriguing thing is that it manages, somewhat miraculously, to be both. Imagine a cinematic cross-breeding of Juno and In the Bedroom, and you’ll have a pretty fair genetic profile of Snow Angels

Adapted from Stewart O’Nan’s 1994 debut novel, the film offers a study of three couples in a wintry, nondescript Pennsylvania town and the ways their lives intersect as a series of unfortunate events unfolds. Each couple is at a different stage in their relationship. At the very cusp of the romantic arc are Michael Angarano’s Arthur and Olivia Thirlby’s Lila. He’s a trombonist in the school band. She’s a recent transfer who likes to take photos with an old-fashioned box camera and likes Arthur even more. Both are natural, immensely likable presences, and Lila’s good-hearted efforts to help the insecure teen see what a great catch he is are enormously touching. Theirs is one of the wittiest, smartest, sweetest stories of teen love to make it onto celluloid in years.

Arthur’s mother and father are played by Jeannetta Arnette and Griffin Dunne. Their marriage has hit a rough patch but, we sense, is not an entirely lost cause. Dunne’s character is a science teacher in the grip of a regulation mid-life crisis. Arnette’s is the more fleshed out: a virtual zombie who, in a powerful scene, counsels her son against blocking out life’s pain. “You need to feel this all the way through,” she warns. “Don’t be like me.”

Unlike either of these pairs — or anyone else in town, for that matter — are Annie and Glenn Marchand. Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell provide the picture’s center of gravity as a husband and wife who reached the breaking point and never slowed down. Annie is the town beauty. She waits tables at the same Chinese restaurant where Arthur busses. Life has shortchanged her — and her 4-year-old daughter — and she sees her separation as the chance for a new beginning.

Rockwell, of course, is the Olivier of head cases. His Glenn is a time bomb of a screw-up who believes he has a shot at winning Annie back because he’s stopped drinking, found work at a carpet shop, and let Jesus into his life. His initial attempts at reconciliation are doomed to failure, but he’s too whacked out to notice. When he learns that his wife is sleeping with a married sleazeball (Nicky Katt), he snaps, and the ensuing tragedies culminate with the two gunshots we heard at the start of the story.

I’ll be honest: I didn’t seek out Snow Angels because I’m a fan of David Gordon Green’s work. This is his fourth film and the first I’ve seen. The truth is, the only other releases hitting town the same weekend were Made of Honor and Iron Man, and if there’s anything I’m drawn to less than dopey romantic comedies, it’s comic-book adaptations. But, while I may not have chosen it on the basis of its merits, I was pleasantly surprised to discover Green’s new film possesses so many.

The director draws artful, affecting performances from his cast, the writing and camerawork are first rate, and Green has rearranged the novel’s narrative furniture in such a way as to heighten both the poignancy and suspense of the source material. Now that summer blockbusters have begun trickling into the cineplex, there may be limited interest in such chilly scenes of winter. If you ask me, though, movie-making as gripping and gimmick-free as this is never out of season.