David Gordon Green's fourth feature is somewhat of a departure for a director known for his lyrical depictions of Southern life.
Based on a novel by Stewart O'Nan and set in an unidentified northern town in the dead of winter, "Snow Angels" opens with a wink followed by a bang. A high school marching band is fumbling hilariously through a desultory rendition of Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" when a couple of gunshots ring out nearby. The sudden sense of menace cuts through what until then had felt like the set-up to a wry comedy or witty drama in the vein of "The Ice Storm."
Flash back to a few weeks earlier. Young trombonist Arthur (Michael Angarano) buses tables and washes dishes at the local Chinese restaurant where his former baby-sitter Annie ( Kate Beckinsale) works as a waitress. Arthur is living through the trauma of his parents' impending divorce, and Annie is still recovering from her recent separation. The two events intermingle for Arthur, who has just met a girl himself. The delightfully smart and free-spirited Lila (Olivia Thirlby) makes it clear that her feelings for Arthur extend beyond the platonic, but he's too preoccupied with the disintegrating relationships around him to notice.
Arthur is meant to provide the point of view that connects the stories of the three couples, but as the movie nears its climax, Annie's story leaves Arthur's orbit and enters a world of its own. As Annie and Glenn's drama swells with portent, Arthur's parents' story, ably interpreted by an intriguing Jeanetta Arnette and Griffin Dunne, recedes into inconsequence. Annie and Glenn cast a shadow over Arthur and Lila's budding romance too, which is a shame because Green's depiction of high-school love is so honest, gimlet-eyed, true-to-life and otherwise masterful, you wish the movie stayed with it throughout. One of Arthur and Lila's phone conversations alone is worth the price of admission. (She: "I really like that pencil you gave me." He: "Isn't it cool?" She: "It's a wonderful gift." And to think Thirlby was letting rip bogus zingers like "Honest to blog!" in her last movie, where she played Ellen Page's character's best friend in "Juno.")
Determined to make a decent life for herself and her 4-year-old daughter Tara (Grace Hudson), Annie tries to be kind to her fragile ex-husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell) but refuses to let him back into her life. Glenn is an electric character, a live wire crackling with need and insecurity which he tries to mask with sweetness, humor and charm. He's also a recovering (relapsing) alcoholic, suicide risk and born-again Christian who is unraveling before everyone's eyes. Still, when an unexpected tragedy shatters his fragile personality, Glenn takes a turn so relentlessly dark it's hard to reconcile it with the clownish, affectionate guy he was at the beginning of the movie, and "Snow Angels" starts to feel like two distinct films cut and shuffled together.
Despite all-around wonderful performances and excellent dialogue, the story never quite coheres narratively. Instead it moves toward a hopelessly bleak -- and I mean bleak -- climax that's more traumatic than dramatic. "Snow Angels" begins with a wink, but it ends with a sucker punch. And somehow this doesn't feel fair.