If—like the Beatles surreally imagined—happiness is a warm gun, writer-director David Gordon Green's (Undertow, 2004) misleadingly titled, adult-themed Snow Angels makes a case for an alternately depressant dose of reality. Starring Kate Beckinsale (Annie) and Sam Rockwell (Glenn), the fairish melodrama is a downer tale, based on Stewart O’Nan’s 1994 novel of the same name, which follows the emotional fallout from an All-American working-class family, and the surrounding community, crumbling apart due to failed dreams, lost loves, and inabilities to cope.
Maximizing its $1.5 million budget with the canny choice to tailor itself as a character-driven piece, the movie takes place during wintertime in an unnamed town (shot in Nova Scotia, Canada). Cold-bloodedness of one form or another permeates—indoors and out. Unforgiving frozen snow blankets the ground throughout, with much of the goings-on taking place in front yards, parking lots, and a high school football field. Because it’s always icy and raw, the added clothing coverings paradoxically reveal layers and colors about individual characters; who they want to be and who they really are.
This is a blue-collar community. The kind of town where folks drive around with dogs in the back of their pickup beds, say grace when preparing to eat lunch at the mall food court, and look forward to casseroles for supper before sundown.
When we meet Annie and Glenn, they’ve already separated. Glenn drops by for scheduled visits with the couple’s four-year-old daughter, Tara. Annie is a waitress at a Chinese restaurant. The bearded Glenn, intermittently employed, recently hired on at a local carpet warehouse. This wasn’t a mutually agreed upon breakup. Even so, they're are no winners; both Annie and Glenn have broken hearts. Where things went wrong we’re not quite sure.
We get enough to know that Glenn is a lovable screw-up that won’t—can’t—let go of Annie. (“I don’t care what the judge said. I’m not a dangerous person”). He’s so fragile that when Annie originally left him he drove his car off a 100-foot-high bridge. On purpose. He failed even at suicide. In his mind, he learned from the temporary loss of sanity, for now he’s a born-again Christian. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Annie is trying to move on, although how well she’s succeeding is debatable. She’s having an affair with Nate (Nicky Katt), the husband of her best friend and coworker, Barb (Amy Sedaris). The adulterers rendezvous at a middling motel called the Stardust. If only.
In the center of town is the local high school, where the band routinely practices on the football field’s frozen tundra. They’re struggling to pick up the musical arrangements for their latest opus—Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” How apropos. Playing the trombone as a member of the band is Arthur (Michael Angarano). He’s an aimless teenager—skips school to smoke weed—that’s having increasing difficulty relating to his parents, especially his dad (Griffin Dunne). Arthur’s parents are separating. Nothing’s sacred in a small town. Secrets are kept among family, but not neighbors.
Snow Angels’ title implies a false sense of hope, of a light at the end of a miserable trail of bad choices. And now, bad luck. Nursing sickness, the overworked Annie awakens from an involuntary nap to discover that her daughter Tara has disappeared from the house. Is she playing possum? Worse, did Glenn kidnap her? With all the townspeople helping in the search, an apathetic Arthur finds the little girl on the wrong side of a nearby ice-covered pond. His detachment unhinged, the teenage boy is dazed by this fateful turn—Tara's, the community’s, his.
If it wasn’t for bad luck the forlorn Annie and Glenn wouldn’t have no luck at all. The decaying facades of marriages, friendships, and the community are pushed to the brink with Tara’s death on the collective conscious. It’s a matter of when, not if, people will break, Glenn’s psyche perhaps the brittlest among them.
The scenes between Glenn and Annie are competently, if without a clear end-game, realistic. Each actor conveys the insecurities and awkwardness that inhabits a relationship when a man and woman fall out of love after having brought another human being into the world. The confrontations between Glenn and Nate—like when the drunkard shows up to confront Nate about the married man’s conniving infidelities—subtly shed superficial machismo, stripping both men down to reveal the sensitivities they’ve been conditioned to repress.
Rockwell’s Glenn is a man haunted by a past that has come home to collect debts unpaid. In a role that’s practically come to be known as the overwrought “Sean Penn” part, Rockwell is vulnerable—but not overly or shamelessly so, proving that life and movies aren't always happy endings.