God bless David Gordon Green, and his new picture Snow Angels. Since his first feature, George Washington, and on through his subsequent works (All The Real Girls and Undertow) Green has been doing his best to give working class folk a place in the cinematic landscape that is free of judgment, condescension or romanticism. Snow Angels, his fourth feature, is his most accomplished picture yet.
Green’s previous efforts relied heavily on the aesthetic trappings of Michelangelo Antonioni and Peter Weir. An abundance of static (or at least very slow moving) shots of geography, architecture, the space of the locations in which the stories took place dominated George Washington, popped up repeatedly in All The Real Girls, and are almost absent in the “balls-out horror movie” [I'm paraphrasing Green's own not-quite-accurate assessment of his own film] Undertow. It is a nice aesthetic, poetic when employed properly, and Green really knows how to make use of the style.
With Snow Angels, Green achieves a new level of balance, crafting the most stylistically integrated film of his career. The photographic shots of streets and streams and trees are still there, but they are not pervasive. In Snow Angels these shots actually begin to take on meaning in way they never have before. They express limitations – the frame and the subject within it are caught in this world in a more purely cinematic way than they have been in any of his other films.
When the audience is shown a man pumping gas, it feels claustrophobic. The shot crops out everything above the man’s shoulder and below his car’s trunk, transforming him into Man Pumping Gas, as opposed to a man pumping gas. When a bulldozer stutters across a narrow street and dumps a load of gravel onto a pile of rocks, it suggest something about the permanence of change, and the slowness of evolution – the emotionless labor of modern transformation. It is not just a picture placed for tone and atmosphere. While it does contribute to these textural elements, it is actually a symbol for the entire movie, it is part of the film’s image system, and carries narrative as well as aesthetic weight.
This is also Green’s most narratively complex film. It actually has a fully developed B-story, which is new terrain for the director. Granted, it is a book adaptation, but Green successfully makes it feel like his own material. In one emotionally, and physically, painful scene we see Sam Rockwell’s drunken, estranged husband kneel down and pound his fists into a tree, only to turn around and then slam his forehead into the side of his truck over and over again. Blood pours out of his knuckles and his forehead, and the audience’s empathy pours out to him. It echoes a similar scene in All The Real Girls, when Paul Schneider’s Paul beats hell out of the grass beneath his feet after learning that his first true love, Zooey Deschanel’s Noel, has cheated on him. These are men trapped by society, with no other outlet for physical violence than to attack the land that brought them up, yet will always and forever hold them back.
In Snow Angels, Kate Beckinsale’s Annie is a waitress, working a job she hates no more or less than most people hate their jobs. She is a mother, separated from her alcoholic husband, portrayed brilliantly by Rockwell as a man who desperately wants his family back together. Annie is boning her co-worker’s (an almost unrecognizable Amy Sedaris) husband, the amazing Nicky Katt. This recipe for disaster is, without question, the most complicated web of deceit and misfortune Green has attempted. But he raises the bar even higher for himself, introducing a secondary story focused on a blossoming young love between Arthur (Michael Angarano) and Lila (Olivia Thirlby), a story that recalls Green’s own tale of adolescent love All The Real Girls. In Snow Angels, the story of young hopeful love is tied ruthlessly to the story of love gone awry. It is at once tragic and romantic, and it is Green as we’ve never seen him before.
Green’s appeal as a director, as an artist, is his patience, his willingness to wait, his commitment to letting a scene breath. His pictures feel like they are made up of all those little moments that one laughs to oneself about. The quirks, the accidents, the moments of goofiness that rarely find their way into movies. Green’s apparent insistence that his actors create natural and organic moments is most probably his defining characteristic as a director. His movies do not move slowly, necessarily, but they are deliberate. Someone is making decisions. Thank God.
At a time in the history of film where so many directors working in drama and comedy have become victims of the television aesthetic, where story is forced down the viewer’s throat at a condescending and breakneck pace, Green succeeds in making pure cinema simply by taking his time. And his films suggest, rightfully, that the audience take its time to appreciate these precious moments – without judgment, condescension or expectations of romanticism.