Snow Angels (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Snow Angels tries to build an ensemble drama around a central tragedy. However, while individual aspects of the film work well on their own terms, the production as a whole lacks focus. Director David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls) gives us glimpses into the lives of the characters populating his canvas but there's a feeling that he's only scratching the surfaces of stories that have deeper undercurrents. And, frankly, Snow Angels is a downer. This isn't inherently a negative - after all, some of the cinema's most powerful motion pictures are downbeat. However, in this case, there's no emotional force behind all the gloom - just a sense that something's missing.

It takes a little while to get all the characters and their relationships straight but there aren't so many of them that it's inordinately complicated. Annie (Kate Beckinsale) is a waitress at the local Chinese restaurant. She's married to Glenn (Sam Rockwell), but is separated from him because he has violent tendencies, is an alcoholic, and tried to kill himself. He has also recently found Jesus, but that hasn't necessarily changed him for the better. He and Annie have a young daughter who lives with her mother. Annie is having an affair with Nate (Nicky Katt), the husband of her best friend and co-worker, Barb (Amy Sedaris). Another worker at the restaurant is high school student Arthur (Michael Angarano), whose mother and father are separating. In the face of that depressing reality, Arthur is becoming involved with a geeky newcomer to his school, Lila (Olivia Thirlby). All of these characters are about to be impacted by a tragedy whose tendrils infiltrate the nooks and crannies of the small town.

Snow Angels is one of those movies that leaves you wanting more - not more of the relentless gloom that pervades nearly every scene (except for some of the lighter romantic moments between Arthur and Lila) - but more about the characters. The content of Snow Angels represents about three movies inelegantly shoehorned into one. Consequently, none of the individuals populating the film are given their due. In order to spin a tale that involves this many small stories that crisscross, the narrative needs to be allowed to breathe. At under two hours, it spends a lot of its relatively short running time gasping. Snow Angels is more like a number of tacked-together scenes than a cohesive whole. Each of these sequences is well acted, nicely scripted, and effectively directed, but the whole does not equal the sum of the parts. The absent quality - and it takes a while to identify it - is a sense of emotional connection. When the foreshadowed tragedy happens, it lacks power and the aftermath seems oddly muted.

Kate Beckinsale, flawless American accent intact, shows that appearing in popcorn fare like Underworld hasn't dulled her capacity for dramatic acting. She's effective as the self-centered, tragic Annie. Sam Rockwell brings a creepy quality to his tortured evangelical character. Glenn is one of those deeply religious individuals whose inability to conquer his personal demons throws him into a guilt-induced spiral. Amy Sedaris is a firecracker as the appropriately named Barb. Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby make an appealing couple. She's playing a much different character here than her best friend role in Juno; she's believable as a girl geek whose subtle signs of interest go unnoticed by the oblivious Arthur.

Green uses the gray of winter to intensify the gloom surrounding the characters. Many scenes are shot at night or when it's snowing. The cold seeps into the celluloid and renders everything brittle. Atmosphere notwithstanding, it's impossible to shake the sense that the movie is incomplete. Even the strange final scene, which cuts off abruptly to usher in the end credits, adds to the feeling that something is missing. Films like Snow Angels, although technically proficient, can be frustrating when all the elements don't gel. Perhaps Green wanted to stay faithful to the source material (Stewart O'Nan's novel) by not thinning out the number of characters, but there's too much going on for any single movie to encompass. Ensemble pictures are notoriously difficult; even the great Robert Altman didn't consistently get them right. In the end, Snow Angels is not without merit, but its deficiencies coupled with the grim subject matter make is a less-than-enjoyable 105 minutes.

Snow Angels (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2008-03-07
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1