Much like the recent Reservation Road, director David Gordon Green's pensive adaptation of Stuart O'Nan's bestseller is a painfully sad but occasionally predictable look at life, death and vengeance in small-town USA.
Snow Angels opens with a high school band mangling Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer." No sooner has the band director delivered an unintentionally hilarious pep talk to his red-faced musicians than practice is interrupted by the sound of gunshots. Is this is the handiwork of a disgruntled student? Green leaves hanging us in suspense--or at least that's his intention--when he turns back the clock several weeks to chronicle the beginning of the winter of marital discontent in Butler, Penn. Arthur (Sky High's Michael Angarano), the band's trombonist, is hardly shocked to when his mother (Jeanetta Arnette) announces that his father (Griffin Dunne) is moving out. Across town, Arthur's ex-babysitter Annie (Kate Beckinsale) tries to maintain a civil relationship with her estranged husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell) for the sake of their young daughter. Glenn tired to kill himself when Annie left him, but now he's on the rocky road to recovery with the help of his newfound faith in God. He even hopes to reconcile with Annie. But everything turns sour when Glenn discovers Annie is sleeping with her best friend's husband (Amy Sedaris and Nicky Katt). Arthur, who still harbors a crush on Annie, suddenly attracts the attention of the new girl in school, Lila (Juno's Olivia Thirlby). Just as things finally seem to be going right for Arthur, an accident occurs that brings life in the close-knit community of Butler to a screeching halt. And it's not hard to deduce at this point how and why things rapidly turn nasty.
Put the offbeat Rockwell in a dark comedy à la Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and all is fine. But his quirky mannerisms and scenery chewing do not sit well in a serious and sober study of the human condition. So, in Snow Angels, he stands out like a streaker traipsing through a blizzard. Initially he's loud and irritating when he should be attempting to earn Glenn a modicum of sympathy. Then, as Glenn loses everything he holds dear, Rockwell falls into the trap of turning the sad sack into your typical Bible-thumping looney tune. Beckinsale, though, maintains a hushed dignity about her as she agonizingly expresses the fears and frustrations that come with being a newly single mother. We know Beckinsale kicks werewolf butt just fine. But Snow Angels proves she's able to convincingly play an ordinary woman--especially one prone to making many life-altering mistakes--grappling with everyday problems. This is her Monster's Ball. Angarano shuffles through Snow Angels looking dazed and confused, which is what he's required to do as the perpetually puzzled Arthur. But he does rise to the occasion when Arthur finally releases his pent-up emotions. If Arthur's an open book, Lila's a mystery. But Thirlby makes her sweetly affable rather than completely impenetrable. Dunne and Arnette are so grating as one couple in crisis that you just want to shake them out of their middle-aged malaise. Sedaris and Katt provide Snow Angels with its few moments of levity, but the latter also reveals a ferocity we're not seen before from the Strangers with Candy funny lady.
By remaining faithful to the novel's opening, David Gordon Green wants a sense of dread to permeate every moment leading up to Snow Angels' disturbing climax. While this is indeed the case, Green still should have ditched this flash-forward. The result: you quickly ID the shooter and the victim, and you're left waiting for the inevitable to occur. Even the catastrophic event that serves as the shooting's catalyst is telegraphed too far in advance. But because Green turns the screws so tightly, the instance the tragedy strikes Snow Angels manages to overcome all anticipation of its violent conclusion. What follows is a harrowing depiction of one preventable tragedy leading to another. To this end, Green ensures that we become so emotionally invested in the characters in question that even knowing their intertwined fates doesn't diminish the shock of what's to come. Part of this stems from Green skillfully comparing and contrasting the three rocky marriages at the heart of Snow Angels, which allows us to identify not just with the estranged couples but with the loved ones they inadvertently hurt as ttheir lives fall apart. On the flipside, there's much joy and optimism to be found in the romance between high school geeks Arthur and Lila. In that regards, Snow Angels is as much a coming-of-age tale, as it is an intimate portrait of the brokenhearted desperate to heal their wounds. If only we didn't know so soon that it would end so bloodily.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 1/2 stars.