POETRY IN SNOW MOTION
by Kevin Bowen
published April 18, 2008
now showing in select
For a film widely reputed to be three corpses
short of a full mortuary, we’ll start talking about David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels in an odd place. We’ll talk about its sense of
The latest entry from the rural film poet
takes full advantage of the quirks of its snowbound northern town. An estranged father cooks hot dogs in a toaster. A tattooed tough guy
stands accused of adultery while doing laundry in a fluffy robe. A Chinese restaurant employs a staff of Caucasians without an Asian in sight.
The style isn’t sufficiently clandestine to call “subtle.” But it doesn’t dance for the camera, either. Green has a spongy eye for the
unnoticed inane detail, found in small things in small places.
For all the visual glory of his two indie
standards George Washington and All the Real Girls, Green’s real strength is the Faulknerian knowledge that he feels for his
characters and their isolated worlds. This is a man who knows how they eat their pizza (cheese and pepperoni first). Green is often compared
to his friend, mentor, and basketball teammate Terrence Malick. But where Malick is a lyric poet adept at intellectual speculation, Green
moves to lonely heartbeats, exploring the explosiveness of love.
It’s odd that Green demonstrates such a grasp
of details, because details of their emotional conditions are precisely what elude his characters. A running Green theme is the overpowering
mystery of love and the hopelessness of words (and minds) to lasso it and express it effectively. In what appears to be a meaningless scene
but isn’t, the film’s teenage lovebirds, Arthur and Lila, go so far as to look up the meaning of “blowjob” in a slang dictionary. The film’s
older couples know the vocabulary and the routines, but it doesn’t lead to a clearer understanding. Notice no adult has advice for the
teen-agers, no secrets of love, beyond to say it’s complicated. At the same time, they are aware that its sweet venom can be carried in
something as simple as the right song.
The film opens with the wrong song, the
strains (and we mean strains) of the world’s worst high school marching band, wandering innocently out of step and out of tune on an icy
field. Shortly, the scene surrenders to a less pleasing sound of love – two gunshots, sharp, distant cracks across the everlasting snow.
With this introduction, we launch into the romantic entanglements that give the film its bleak reputation. The sweet experimentations of
Arthur and Lila (Michael Angerano and the going-places Olivia Thirlby) are often accompanied by her trusty camera. Later, we see
another photo of a teenage couple, an old photo of Annie and her estranged husband Glenn (Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell). That picture
has given way to gloomier circumstances. She is a newly single mom trying to care for her child while dealing with the agonizing swirl of men.
He is a friendly but mentally disturbed man, who has turned to Christianity to try to tame the demons inside. The two relationships stand
opposed, yet we know from experience that one can wind into the other. Spiritually in between these two poles stand Arthur’s parents (Griffin
Dunne and Jeanetta Arnette), who seem to ebb and flow between affection and alienation.
Green is in transition from poetic lyricism
to a more direct dramatic style. This transition has its rough edges. At times, especially the climax, he goes with drama when a touch of
poetry might work better. For the most part, though, things go smoothly, showing Green’s ability to address the same themes in a broader way.
Yet those familiar with his other movies will find comfort in the presence of cinematographer Tim Orr, who gives the film its snowy majesty,
painting a moment of frozen desperation.
Snow Angels is a healthy rebound from 2005’s Undertow and a calling card for more conventional (and more commercially viable)
projects (Green might as well attach resumes to the reels.). But in the true auteur sense, Snow Angels holds fast to the interests and
concerns that move its director – the sledgehammer of the human heart.