In the hands of a less capable director, this devastating tale of loneliness, murder, adultery and budding teenage love could have easily turned into a melodramatic soap opera filled with completely unlikeable characters. However David Gordon Green once again expresses his genius by displaying human characters with real emotions. The film begins and ends with a montage of standard everyday activity in your standard American town, showing that these people aren't in extraordinary circumstances or any different from you or I. They are human, and they are very flawed.
Another genius decision by Green is who he decided to put in the middle of the film. In a story filled with such tragedy, it is surprisingly centered around Arthur (Michael Angarano), a young band member, and his budding romance with quirky new girl Lila (Olivia Thirlby). Their adorable friendship-turned-relationship is so sweet and pleasant that when they are on screen alone you completely forget about the chaos that is surrounding this town. At the beginning of the film we hear two gunshots as the band is preparing their big number for the football game at the end of the week. So from the start we know that this story is destined to end in tragedy. But in these moments with just Arthur and Lila being awkward and cute with one another, expressing their mutual attraction or making love for the first time, Green makes us believe that everything is right in this small town; if only for a moment.
Possibly the biggest story of the film is the destructive relationship of Arthur's co-worker (and former babysitter), Annie (Kate Beckinsale) and her unstable ex-husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell). Annie goes through the entire film taking one hit after another. She has so much on her plate, between raising a child alone, taking care of her mother and her affair with Nate (Nicky Katt) who is coincidentally her best friend's (Amy Sedaris) husband. Slowly everything in her world unravels until a point where she is nothing but an empty vessel of what may have been a happy woman at some point in her life, back when Glenn used to make her life. Glenn himself is an absolute wreck in every aspect of his life. On the surface he appears to be a despicable, hypocritical character who preaches about how Christianity saves him but then falls right back into drinking and neglecting his daughter. However in the writing and in Rockwell's flawless performance he becomes one of the most sympathetic characters I've seen in many years. It's a film filled with real people who keep falling into horrific circumstances.
At the center of the entire film is Green's sensational writing and directing. But his brilliant work would be nothing without the astounding performances from the entire cast. Sam Rockwell is an actor who I admire passionately, but he still managed to surprise me with his portrayal of Glenn. Rarely have I had such an emotional connection with a character to the point where I cry when he does and when he does something that I know is wrong, my stomach clenches in fear of what the consequences will be. His performance is a tour de force and one of the best I've seen this decade. Kate Beckinsale is also surprisingly fantastic. The role is very unflattering and at first glance her angelic beauty seems to be miscast, but she proves that external beauty can be nothing but a cover for someone who is slowly breaking to pieces inside. She is absolutely devastating, and explosive, throughout the film. However the most surprising of the cast is the young Michael Angarano who nails the role of Arthur with a reserved, internal anguish that is barely let out on the surface but is always clearly dwelling underneath. It's a trait that I could relate so well with and I was amazed at how well he captured this performance. Olivia Thirlby, one of my favorite young actresses, is also phenomenal as the unique, adorable young photographer who gets Angarano to fall for her; it's easy to see why.
As almost everyone says, Snow Angels is an incredibly difficult film to watch, but one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had. Everyone who contributes in the film is at the very top of their game and it combines for something unlike anything I've ever seen. Green is clearly one of the most passionate directors working today; he refuses to add a flare or flashy style to his films but in doing so makes his intimate relationship with his characters instantly recognizable. He is a man who cares so deeply about the people he is putting on the screen that he refuses to let anyone label them or imply anything about them. This film is many things; a tragedy, a tale of young love, a display of flawed human beings falling apart in a small town. Ultimately though, to me, it's a story of loneliness. Green shows early on that no matter what you have in your life, everyone is instinctively lonely. By the end he proves that without love or friendship, life can fall apart to results that you would never dream possible.