With each picture since his 2000 debut George Washington, David Gordon Green has taken at least a small step backward. That gradual regression becomes a full-fledged precipitous decline with Snow Angels, a film in which the director (working from a novel by Stewart O'Nan) flails about in search of poetry, and comes up with only trivial stylistic flourishes that compound his story's overwrought faux-naturalism. Considering the lyrical grace of his heralded first feature, Green's devolution from one of American cinema's most promising talents to his current status as just another middling indie lightweight is tough to fathom. Yet with his latest, Green misses the mark in so many respects -- from a multi-strand plot devoid of insight, to performances that are generally overcooked, to a mise-en-scène that comes up largely empty in the department of inspired grace and beauty -- that it makes one wonder if his upcoming foray into director-for-hire work (with this summer's raunchy stoner comedy The Pineapple Express) isn't a shrewd attempt to escape his own increasingly faulty auteurist instincts.
A gunshot rings out in the chilly air, interrupting a high school marching band practice going so poorly that the squad's coach (Tom Noonan) is compelled to yell (in theme-underlining fashion), "We're all part of a formation. Every person matters!" Cue an Altman-esque tale of wayward individuals looking for stability and community, though not before Noonan -- orchestrating a rendition of the classic Peter Gabriel song -- follows up with the cheeky query, "Do you have a sledgehammer in your heart? Because I have a sledgehammer in my heart." Certainly, Snow Angels has a sledgehammer in its head, since the ensuing drama is leaden in both form and content, despite Green's frequent penchant for allowing his camera to drift away from the action proper and float off into the sky, a device that reflects not imaginative directorial inquisitiveness as much as a flighty lack of focus. Still, Green's pensive approach to storytelling does, for a time, keep things mildly intriguing, as he tenderly lays out his tale about the broken families of high schooler Arthur (Michael Angarano) -- whose parents are divorcing -- and his childhood babysitter and town beauty Annie (Kate Beckinsale), estranged from hubby Glenn (Sam Rockwell) and having an affair with the spouse (Nicky Katt) of her best friend (Amy Sedaris).
The pain of separation and the awkward thrill of young love are Snow Angels' prevailing interests, the latter expressed via Arthur's budding romance with a recent transfer (Juno's Olivia Thirlby) who's a bundle of cute quirk, whether it be her hobby of taking black-and-white photos of her new hometowns, her nerdy-sexy glasses, or her habit of openly blurting out her feelings to Arthur. Arthur and Lila's burgeoning relationship has a sweet sincerity even when the writer/director's scripting veers awfully close to affected over-sentimentality. Unfortunately, Arthur's adventure in amour plays second fiddle to the efforts of Annie to deal with Glenn, an alcoholic, born-again headcase living with his parents and desperate to both reconcile with Annie and spend time with their four-year-old daughter Tara (Grace Hudson). The couple's downward spiral into violence and tragedy is the film's narrative hub, and a rickety one it quickly proves to be, because Green (once again collaborating with cinematographer Tim Orr) layers his story with so many hollow cinematographic devices that any acute, affecting perceptions about the complexities of love, family and responsibility are hopelessly muffled.
Throughout Snow Angels, Green seeks profundity through visual means, his trembling camera and manicured compositions trying mightily to instill events with deeper, resonant meaning. That this self-conscious aesthetic has the opposite effect ultimately proves debilitating, though Beckinsale radiates genuine fierceness and frustration (this despite being somewhat miscast as a working-class waitress), and her rapport with Rockwell has an offhand, comfortable-after-all-these-years authenticity. On the other hand, Rockwell's performance as the pitiful, well-meaning but increasingly dangerous Glenn is a mess of ultra-actorly scrunched-faced expressions, squirmy gestures, and unhinged brooding. In the actor's defense, however, no amount of subtlety and restraint would salvage some of the melodramatic scenarios Glenn is saddled with, none more inexplicably goofy than a nocturnal bar room bender that culminates with him slow-dancing -- as a birthday cake inscribed with the word "Champ" glows conspicuously in the background -- with a strange old woman dressed like Freddy Krueger.