Well-made, expertly acted and grim, grim, grim. Toss in the occasionally well-observed joke — and an impeccable sense of time and place — and Snow Angels impresses almost as much as it frustrates.
Fact is, we've all heard this downer story before: A small town, seemingly nice guy loses control of his marriage, becomes estranged from his wife, grows increasingly angry (and religious) and ends committing a murder-suicide.
It's a tragedy, no doubt. But without some revelatory insight or commentary on the modern human condition, you have to wonder what in the world would attract a first-rate cast like Sam Rockwell, Kate Beckinsale and Amy Sedaris to a disjointed and shallow rehash of domestic tragedies we see in countless news stories.
Now, there's nothing wrong with making a downer film — there are plenty of great ones. But filmmaker David Gordon Green (George Washington) really has nothing to say in this Altman-esque ensemble drama.
Lost amid Green's overly complicated narrative strands (faithfully translated from Stewart O'Nan's novel) are any kind of focus or insight on marriage, parenthood or the pain of separation. Each character, so carefully drawn by the talented cast, is only able to scratch the surface, leaving the darker undercurrents of their behavior wholly unexplored.
Instead, poetic shots of endless gray skies, murky evenings and fluttering snowflakes drift in and out of the scenes, lending Snow Angels an effective but ultimately unenlightening pensiveness. It's as if Green is determined to squeeze out profundity through overwrought imagery because he's all too aware that his convoluted script isn't cutting the mustard.
Beckinsale sheds her vampiric action persona (the moronic Underworld) to play Annie, a self-centered yet tragically defiant waitress. It's a terrific performance of a flawed but fascinating character unfortunately overshadowed by Rockwell's fidgety overacting. Playing her creepy, born-again estranged husband, his Glenn is little more than a cartoon, a sad and fathomless villain who personifies the shortcomings of Green's film. Nothing illustrates this better than the horrible loss this ex-couple suffers mid-film, which does nothing to deepen their characters or flesh out the story.
The supporting cast is good. Amy Sedaris shines as Annie's betrayed friend Barb, injecting every scene with lived-in humor and energy. Even better are Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby (Juno) as a pair of awkward teens in a budding romance. In contrast to the film's central violent spine, their sincere and tentative relationship offers a welcome reprieve from Green's relentless march toward tragedy. It's not handled with any more depth or sophistication than the rest of the film, but it still stands out by virtue of its sweetness. Still, one has to wonder if the 33-year-old director is flailing to make a statement about the endless possibilities of teen affection and the miserable futility of adult love.
Ultimately, Snow Angels disappoints because writer-director David Gordon Green has the talent to pull you along but doesn't know where to take you. Like the newspaper articles that chart terrible acts of domestic violence, his film leaves you stranded between wanting to know more and wishing you'd never opened the damn paper.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.