After making Snow Angels, maybe it's not all that surprising that David Gordon Green needed a break from dramas. It's arguably his most ambitious film, but also his most obvious, heavy-handed, and absurd. While his previous efforts before this-George Washington, All the Real Girls, and Undertow-had a wonderful backwoods regional flavor while also beautifully mixing random everydayness with lyricism, here Green looses much of that in the story's grand thematic ambition, which ultimately never resonates. Maybe he's still too caught up in the grittiness and unpredictability of his previous efforts to make this material work. To be firm, it's not the greatest marriage of material and director.
The film starts with a high school band getting an intense prep talk from their coach before he's interrupted by a series of gun shots off in the distance. Green then cuts to a series of shots of the town, yet rather than using crisp cutting he transitions from image to image with distracting fades. I was left scratching my head at this, as I was with so much of the movie.
The movie flashes back several weeks as we're introduced to Arthur (Michael Angarano), a pleasant high school kid who balances his desire for romance, being in the school band, and his job at a chinese restaurant with a troubled home life in which his father is forced out of the house by his wife because he's too passive. It's a pattern that shows up several times in the movie. At the restaurant, Arthur works with Annie, a mother who's life is a wreck but whose flawless physical features suggest some lavish lifestyle as a model. That Beckisnale never looks harried or weathered, as any real person in her situation would, is one of the movie's many unconvincing aspects (though despite this, she still gives one of her best performances). Annie's estranged from her husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell), an underachieving, uneasy fellow whose separation from his family is apparently due to a suicide attempt. Now he's trying to make a case to get back in her life, though unbeknownst to him is the fact that she's sleeping with Nate, a painfully reticent hunk-a-hunk (Nicky Katt), who happens to be the husband of one of her best friends. These two males and Arthur's father serve as a triptych of flawed, weak men, suggesting that Arthur is on his own in a world where adults are too preoccupied with themselves to think about the betterment of their young. The film mainly cuts between Annie's story and Arthur's, and as his life seems to be picking up due to a romance with a cute indie photographer chick (Olivia Thirlby), her's begins to crumble when her affair with Nate is discovered by both her husband and his wife.
Essentially this is a movie about adults acting like kids, a theme that was handled far better in Todd Field's Little Children. While that film was haunting, engrossing, and beautifully put together, Snow Angels seems to lose interest in its story and the realism of its characters about half way through and becomes something unconvincing and thoroughly stupid.
It all starts with a tragedy (which I won't reveal) that seems to spark Green's interest in dark, gritty, melodramatic pulp that worked so well in Undertow and his most recent movie, Joe. But here it's as if he forgets (or perhaps rejects) the story he was telling for most of the film, which creates a sense of imbalance and indifference, or to put it more simply, a bad movie. Suddenly Arthur, who was the movie's most sympathetic and interesting character, looses a lot of screen time (and thus further development) in favor of a handful of over-the-top confrontations between Rockwell, Beckinsale, and Katt that reach one of the most idiotic and unwarrented crescendos you'll ever see. It's very violent, and extremely sad, yet it's also artificial (the one good part about it though is seeing Sam Rockwell's angst-ridden face as he awaits an inevitable scene of violence--it's just like he was in The Assassination of Jesse James, released that same year). It's as if Green forsook any sense of believability for just making the ultimate downer ending. In a different movie, one more in line with Green's previous efforts, it would have worked. Yet for a film so earnest in its first half, it merely comes across as a betrayal. There are those who admire the audacity of the turn in the story, and yet the audacity here seems more like an end rather than a means. Like ambiguity, when used poorly, it's almost like a cop out.
What's even more frustrating is that Green doesn't seem to care. The entire movie is like a blank stare, devoid of backing for any of its decisions. Why does Green's camera jitter around awkwardly in some scenes when a still shot would have been perfectly fine? Why does he randomly place his camera looking down directly above the action? What's the point of the aforementioned fades he used at the beginning of the film, and then again at the end? I might have an answer. In one of the better scenes of the movie, when Arthur is going for a walk with his father and having a serious conversation, the father's answer to a tough question is that "Sometimes we do things we can't explain." The action stops here, yet the tracking shot continues, as if no one's controlling the dolly. "I wanted to reach up and yank it back," David Edelstein writes in his review of the film. Green might have an answer for this if you ask him, but all I can imagine is that his response would be the same as the father's.