If there is one word that describes David Gordon Green’s new film, Snow Angels, it is challenging. If there are five words, they are “challenging in a good way.”
The same words could be used to describe any of Green’s films, which have been consistently complex, beautiful, and multilayered. If you have not seen his stunning first feature, 2000’s George Washington (made for a paltry 40k), or 2003’s lush All the Real Girls, you should definitely check them out. His gorgeously gothic third film, Undertow (which was produced and co-written by Green’s inspiration Terrence Malick), is also a must-see.
Green’s fourth film and first adaptation (based on the novel by Stewart O’Nan), Angels is an ensemble drama about a chain of shattering events in one wintry Pennsylvania town. Like Green’s other films, Angels focuses on the complexities of interpersonal, familial, and intergenerational relationships. The film centers upon Annie and Glenn (Kate Beckinsdale and Sam Rockwell), a recently separated couple with a young daughter and a lot of issues to work out. Annie is having an affair with a man (Nicky Katt) who is married to her closest friend and coworker (Amy Sedaris). Glenn—an unstable, unemployed loser who has recently turned firebrand evangelical Christian—refuses to let Annie go, and a series of poor choices by all parties results in tragic consequences. On the lighter side, the second major relationship of the film is a budding high school romance between band-nerd Arthur (Michael Angarano) and new-girl Lila (Olivia Thirlby). Arthur’s parents are divorcing and his friend (and former babysitter) Annie is suffering, but his innocent and awkward relationship with Lila gives an otherwise cold film a hearty, curiously nostalgic warmth.
Snow Angels (opening March 14 in NY and LA) divided audiences at Sundance last year, and it’s easy to see why. This is not an easy film. I have seen David Gordon Green speak about his films on several occasions (and I met him in person three years ago), and he always reiterates that his goal in filmmaking is to “do things differently” than conventional Hollywood. He eschews the traditional three-act structure, preferring a “two-halves” form, and privileges moments over coherent narrative. He foregrounds odd little character moments and curious visual details not to service the plot but rather to add texture and color to his extremely unique, realist/phenomenological cinematic aesthetic.
Photographed by Green’s film school comrade Tim Orr, Angels beautifully captures the slightly-antiquated, worn-down material and heavily naturalistic settings that have come to define his films. The film’s post-rock instrumental music (including songs from Mono, Uno Dose, Silver Mt. Zion and a new track from Explosions in the Sky) further enhances the organic, ethereal mood. It’s an intensely artistic film, juxtaposing easy-listening poetry with brazen, balls-out subject matter that will leave unsuspecting viewers utterly confused.
Typically, Green’s films are most challenging on the tonal level, and this is where audiences and critics have been divided about Angels. “I like movies that challenge me tonally,” said Green at a recent screening of George Washington. And Angels is certainly one such film. At times it feels like a dark comedy, at others a tragedy. Frequently it is beautifully mellow, but there are several scenes of terrible intensity. Green loves to jump back and forth from humor to tragedy, sometimes within the same scene. There is a striking scene in which Sam Rockwell’s character is heartbroken and impossibly drunk at a dingy rural bar. It is desperately sad, until he starts slow-dancing with some equally blitzed drunks to a Gene Autry song. All of a sudden it is funny, and odd, and tragic—all at the same time. And it’s not just quirkiness for the sake of irony. It works. You never know what kind of wonderful and compelling nuggets Green will throw at you next, which is a rare and wonderful trait in a director.
I am purposefully avoiding a discussion of what actually happens in this film, because the joy of watching it is that it is totally unpredictable—even shocking. It’s a film that asks deep questions about morality and collective responsibility, offering little in the way of justice or blame. It’s a film that shows the small joys and heartbreaks of life in all their symbiotic simultaneity. It’s a wonderfully unsteady, untidy experience that will mess with the tidy filmgoer. But sometimes we need to be messed with.