After seeing David Gordon Greene's "Snow Angels," many people may be disturbed and horrified by the realistic portrayal of the murder and deaths that occur within a family living in a small Pennsylvania town. I know I was.
Yet, this is not some overly violent or grossly gory horror film. You don't see any blood in fact. The only hints of violence that are present are the distant sounds of gunshots.
The movie, in fact, opens on a cold, snowy, high school football field where the teenage team is practicing. Yet, the focus isn't on them. The focus is instead on a very strict, marching band coach. His angry-toned, semi-inspirational yelling is dismissed when loud gunshots ring out over the practice.
At first, echoes of Columbine, Virginia Tech, or even Delaware State University sing in our minds. Is this movie about a school shooting? There is not mistaking that it was the sound of gunfire. The sound brings everyone to a standstill, frozen in time.
Standing on that field is Arthur Parkinson, played by Michael Angarano ("The Forbidden Kingdom" and "Sky High"). He's a trombone player in the marching band. He's also a clumsy busboy at a local Chinese restaurant.
He's certainly not one of the cool kids. Besides work and school, he seems to spend most nights alone in his room, secretly drinking his father's beer. Arthur has a pot-smoking friend, but he seems to be a typical loner.
It may be compounded by the fact that his parents are separating. One night, Arthur catches them in an argument. After that, his dad moves out. In school, Arthur is never picked on. He has a crush on a nerdy-looking yet sexually adventurous girl named Lila, an amateur photographer who instantly takes a liking to him.
You wonder, however, if writer-director David Gordon Greene, adapting from Stewart O'Nan's novel, is laying the groundwork for an Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, or a Seung Hui Cho. No. Arthur's story is merely the B-story. In O'Nan's novel, it was given more weight, but here Greene has a different fascination.
Arthur works with a woman at the Chinese restaurant named Annie, played by Kate Beckinsale ("Underworld" and "The Aviator"). Annie's husband is Glenn, played by Sam Rockwell ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" and "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"). And, it's actually Annie and Glenn who are the movie's focus.
What happens to Arthur provides a counterpoint to what happens to Annie and Glenn. It shows how some people can deal with a series of similar circumstances, or, in fact, the same situation in two completely different, if not completely opposite ways.
Arthur sees his parents separate, coming ever so close to divorce. He never gets the particulars as to why, but watching the film, one reason becomes obvious. At the time, we see Annie and Glenn separating, coming very, very close to divorce.
The particulars to their separation are rather spelled out. Glenn has had problems with depression. He's had problems finding a job. He's even been suicidal. He and Annie have a daughter together named Tara, but Annie can't deal with him anymore. She knows he's unstable, so she starts to put barriers between them.
Glenn, honestly, tries to repair his life. He becomes very religious. He gets a job. On the occasions that he gets to visit his daughter, he does his best to make their time enjoyable and fun. Glenn hopes that if he can do these things, he can get back together with his wife.
The acting from Rockwell and Beckinsale through all of this is so natural, earnest, and real, as it's clear that neither of those two are perfect. It, at times, feels awkward and uncomfortable, but it's as close to actual reality as one can get. You believe these people.
Combined with Greene's natural, un-intrusive, and un-ostentatious direction and camerawork makes you forget you're even watching a movie instead peaking into someone's house, or were perhaps a fly on their walls.
You're not hit over the head with your typical thriller theatrics. Greene is subtler than that. He slyly builds to the tragedy, which only accentuates it more. That's why when the horror happens; it's more of an emotional punch. In a way, it's so unexpected. It's a shock, but like the frog in the pot of boiling water, Greene gradually adjusts you to it.
There is an excellent sequence where Greene shows that he can be visually creative and skillful. After the police start investigating the crime, Greene does this motif of having the camera drift, most likely on a dolly and framing his characters on the edge of the frame.
This could be symbolic of what his characters are feeling and how he wants his audience to feel. The characters are all on edge cinematically and emotionally, meaning they're all anxious and they don't know what's going on. In the film, the nature of the crime is not yet revealed. This, I felt, was a brilliant technique.
What I thought was also brilliant was the way Greene shows how each of the characters deal with the resulting tragedy. Arthur bottles up. Annie cries, and Glenn prays, eventually hurting him.
Greene also shows how the tragedy brings some people together and how it drives some people apart. This is one of the best films of 2008.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated R for language, some violent content, brief sexuality and drug use
Running Time: 1 hr. and 46 mins.