Winter’s a real bitch. Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Michael Angarano and Griffin Dunne star in Snow Angels.
Cast of Characters:
Annie Marchand – Kate Beckinsale
Glenn Marchand – Sam Rockwell
Arthur Parkinson – Michael Angarano
Louise Parkinson – Jeannetta Arnette
Don Parkinson – Griffin Dunne
Nate Petite – Nicky Katt
Mr. Chervenick – Tom Noonan
Barb Petite – Amy Sedaris
Lila Raybern – Olivia Thirlby
Director – David Gordon Green
Screenplay – David Gordon Green
Based on the novel Snow Angels by Stewart O’Nan
Producer – Dan Lindau, R. Paul Miller & Lisa Muskat
Rated R for language, some violent content, brief sexuality and drug use
In a small American town, during a cold winter, relationships are being put to the test. Annie Marchand (Kate Beckinsale) is raising her daughter Tara (Gracie Hudson) on her own following the divorce from her husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell), a recovering alcoholic who’s hopped on the born-again bandwagon in hopes of getting his wife and daughter back. Annie works at the local Chinese restaurant with high school busboy Arthur Parkinson (Michael Angarano), whom she used to babysit and Barb Petite (Amy Sedaris), her best friend who’s unaware Annie is having an affair with her husband Nate (Nicky Katt). Meanwhile, Arthur’s parents – Don (Griffin Dunne) and Louise (Jeannetta Arnette) – are in the midst of a separation, which has been causing trouble with his home life, though a new student, Lila Raybern (Olivia Thirlby), appears to be the escape from his clashing parents that he needs.
It seems like typical everyday family turmoil for everyone involved, but following the disappearance of Annie and Glenn’s daughter, everything comes crashing down on them.
Much like Terrence Malick, David Gordon Green has mastered the art of capturing the utmost beauty the most mundane aspects of life. Beginning with his debut George Washington in 2000 and continuing on with All the Real Girls and Undertow, Green has established himself as one of the strongest independent filmmakers of the 21st century, and three misguided attempts at stoner comedy with Pineapple Express, Your Highness and The Sitter don’t change that. Following the thriller Undertow, his fourth feature film, Snow Angels, once again delivers another intimate, emotionally potent portrait of small-town life.
What distinguishes Snow Angels from Green’s three previous works before it is its scope. One could argue it’s his most ambitious work. This time around, he expands from his usual small groups of characters to an ensemble cast. Green opens at the end with an unseen tragedy, before moving back a couple weeks and letting the events unfold up to said tragedy, focusing primarily on four key relationships that intersect one another as they weather the cruelty of winter and the cruelty of each other – depression, alcoholism, suicide, divorce, adultery and murder. It’s an unrelentingly somber flick, yet it’s also moving, beautiful even at times, and Green guides the story with an assured touch in terms of tone, pacing and his trademark knack for dialogue.
The most notable difference Snow Angels features is that Green’s bread and butter setting of the rural South is given a break in exchange for further up north in the dead of winter. While the change of scenery certainly has its benefits, and it’s certainly a respectable move for him to break out of his comfort zone, Green doesn’t quite have as solid a grasp on the type of community he’s depicting here as he’s done in the past. Of course, Green being from the South, it’s no surprise that his first three films benefit greatly from a strongly established sense of place, much in the same way Ben Affleck’s done for his Boston set films Gone Baby Gone and The Town, or the Minnesota born-and-raised Coen brothers with Fargo (say what you want about their supposed “disdain” for Midwesterners, the Coens still did a wonderful job at depicting a fully-realized community). Green compensates his misstep and then some through long-time collaborator Tim Orr’s exquisite cinematography. Green and Orr together can conjure up some striking imagery that’s impossible to look away from, and Orr, who’s one of the best at turning bleak and harsh environments into something beautiful, most definitely capitalizes on the cold surroundings. Still, Green’s unfamiliarity with the story’s setting (somewhere in Pennsylvania) is a minor drawback that only allows Orr to capture the surface of a community that, as a whole, doesn’t feel quite as lived-in as it could’ve.
And, of course, by minor drawback, I mean this is a really good film instead of a great film (and the only reason I bring it up to begin with is that Green’s ability to create a strong sense of place is one of his strongest traits as a filmmaker), so I’m by no means talking deal breaker here. Where the film does succeed is in its performances. A combined assembling of young and veteran talent, this is a uniformly excellent cast, each one providing wholly natural turns with nary a false step to be found in them.
Kate Beckinsale, in particular, is a revelation here, giving easily the strongest performance of her career. Throughout the 2000s, Beckinsale has been pushed out by studios as the next action heroine (the Underworld franchise, Van Helsing, Whiteout), but here she shows layers of depth I had yet to see from her as Annie, a struggling single mother dealing with an affair with her best friend’s husband, as well as her unstable ex-husband. It’s a shame she doesn’t push herself more as an actress like she does here, ’cause there’s an aching honesty to her performance that proves she’s capable of much more that we typically see from her. Equally strong and just as heartbreaking, the always dependable Sam Rockwell dives head-first into his role as Annie’s alcoholic ex Glenn, who’s trying to get his life back on track, though it’s clear as day that he hasn’t entirely rid himself of the demons of his past. Rockwell taps into every one of his character’s frailties and insecurities perfectly, and while you may see his descent into darkness coming, it’s still tragic nonetheless.
There’s great work among the entire supporting cast – Griffin Dunne, Nicky Katt, Tom Noonan, Amy Sedaris – but the two standouts that shine the brightest are the youngest, Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby (Juno fans will remember her as the title character’s best friend). As high school classmates who slowly begin to fall for one another, Angarano and Thirlby have great chemistry and form an authentic, understated relationship that’s every bit as awkward, sweet and funny as the crushes we all once had in high school. Amidst the never-ending coldness surrounding them, it’s these two that provide the film with some much needed warmth.
Snow Angels isn’t David Gordon Green’s best film, but it’s still a strong, poignant effort from the indie filmmaker that’s anchored by his writing and a superb cast led by two career performances from Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell. On the surface, it’s an emotionally devastating examination of the fragility of human relationships wrecked by personal hardships, yet within all its overall dreariness, Snow Angels ultimately reminds us that no matter how harsh it gets, hope never goes away entirely.