There are about two or three different films fighting for control of the screen during David Gordon Green
's powerful but flawed Snow Angels, and in the end none of them win. An adaptation by Green (All the Real Girls) from the novel by Stewart O'Nan, the film is at its core a dispiriting domestic drama in which single mother and waitress Annie (Kate Beckinsale
) is trying to raise her daughter and deal with the encroaching return of her ex-husband, Glenn (Sam Rockwell
), a onetime suicide case and drunk who has now found Jesus and wants back into Annie's life. Set to swirling all around this ugly and embittered core are several stories that never quite seem to plug into each other dramatically, no matter that their characters are closely interrelated via love, friendship, family, and the shockingly violent turn everything takes in the closing minutes.
Set in a small and snowbound Pennsylvania town, Snow Angels at the very least looks like a town from reality, as opposed to the idyllic villages filmmakers create when they want to tell moral fables about violence and family (see Reservation Road, In the Bedroom, and so on). It starts with a high school marching band practicing in the cold, performing in a lackluster fashion that brings about a hilariously stern lecture from their instructor (played to icy perfection by Tom Noonan). Then a pair of gunshots are heard cracking through the cold air and the film flashes back to "weeks earlier." Article continues below
Annie shows up as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant that doesn't seem to employ a single person of Asian descent -- a nice joke that plays even better for not being remarked upon -- but does at least provide customers with Barb (Amy Sedaris
), Annie's friend and co-worker, who will yell at them for no extra charge. As a side note to Annie's problems with Glenn -- an angry loser, played all too frighteningly well by Sam Rockwell, who is back living with his parents, drives a huge pickup, and evangelizes for Jesus at the carpet warehouse he works at -- and, being a single mother, she's sneaking around to a cheap motel with a married man (played for buffoonery value by Nicky Katt
with a bad moustache, leopard-skin briefs, and amateur karate skills). It's fairly ugly stuff, but put across with panache by everyone involved.
In another film entirely, Arthur (Michael Angarano
, in a star-making turn) is a member of that high school marching band who's tangentially connected by being a dishwasher at that same restaurant. Annie was once his babysitter and it's clear from the start that he's been in love with her for years. In Arthur's film, he's watching his parents go through an extremely uncomfortable separation, another small film unto itself, and also developing a quiet crush on a classmate, Lily (Olivia Thirlby
, the best friend in Juno
). There's a kernel of a great movie in this ridiculously cute relationship alone, and the film suffers at least slightly whenever it turns away from them.
While Snow Angels is composed around a knot of characters all closely tied together, there is an inescapable sense of dislocation that seems to keep their stories hermetically sealed from one another. It's possible this is simply an effect of the film's tricky editing scheme, which doesn't always juggle the differing story elements in the most compelling fashion. This woozy disconnect is not unsurprising coming from Green, who has in the past (George Washington in particular) shown a disregard for strict time-and-space linearity. And it is not always ineffective, particularly in the way the film continually sends sharp shards of reality slicing through the narrative's more comfortable portions.
But when it comes to integrating the more jarring and violent aspects of the story, Green's habit of dancing around his characters instead of directly interacting with them becomes more problematic. It helps, for instance, to make discomfiting elements like Glenn's rapid spiraling-down into prayer and drink more cliché than anything else. Confronted with the starkly affecting portraits in much the rest of the film (Angarano's wonderful guilelessness, Beckinsale's flinty despair), Rockwell is marooned in the stock role of threatening redneck, reassuring viewers that when evil comes, it will be in a pickup truck, bearing a Jesus smile.