“Realism and poetry were sustained in exquisite balance.” That is how Armond White, deploring the slavishness of Undertow, accurately encapsulated the genius of David Gordon Green’s George Washington. Like Undertow and All the Real Girls before it, Snow Angels is an obnoxious pageant of effusive style, the cinematic equivalent of a Precious Moments catalog. This one is a twee Nashville panorama, set—according to the film’s press notes—in a small town north of the Mason Dixon line, though it may as well be squeezing us into the snow globe Orson Welles drops in the opening of Citizen Kane.
Before the story returns to the past, weeks before double shotgun blasts interrupt a school’s band practice, coach has a mean hissy fit. “We are all part of a formation,” he wails, his spastic unease never justified like the cultural panic that grips Henry Gibson at the end of Nashville, foisting shallow theme on audiences as compulsorily as Green pushes his fulsome artistry. After school, Arthur (Michael Angarano) works at a Chinese restaurant, with Annie (Kate Beckinsale), the young woman who used to baby-sit him when he was a boy, and Barb (Amy Sedaris), a hot wire whose husband Annie is sleeping with. Green choreographs more than he directs, revealing the links in the story’s formation of characters as if he were drawing a snowflake, or connecting dots, la-la-la-la-la. They say no two are exactly alike, but Green’s are all the same: meticulous and inert, unlike Altman’s more delicate and spontaneously combustible tapestries of human feeling.
Green’s style is as arbitrary as the Cloverfield monster: Death, accidental and otherwise, is preciously photographed, set to diddering music from the same gene pool as Sigur Rós, the camera coyly pushing into scenes, then out, at times drifting away like a gust of wind from characters in mid-conversation to linger on the corner of a room. It’s oh so quiet and still and peaceful, but even when characters blow fuses, there’s never a zing-boom, just more hushed aesthetic din. “No one cares about choices,” someone says, ostensibly about life, though this nugget of wisdom is a concise summation of Green’s poetic effects, which never feel keyed to the reality of his characters, who speak in ways more curious than the ear-chomping solipsists from Juno. Green doesn’t seem to be charting a recognizable world, only the contours of his own mind.
Why does every television in this town play such intolerably fetch television programming? “Tomorrow is going to be hard,” says Arthur’s mother (Jeannetta Arnette), which means crafting a wobbly house on the living room table out of photographs, Sabado Gigante playing in the background. “Oy, gevalt,” says the dude Annie is fucking, but is he even Jewish? Then there’s the nerdy Lila (Olivia Thirlby), who is, like, oh my god, so cute, running down derivations of “fellatio” in the school library with Arthur, later writing “Hey you!” in purple marker on the back of his hand. Poor Sam Rockwell, who clearly caught something from Vera Farmiga on the set of Joshua, bears the brunt of Green’s preciousness: As Glenn, the ticky, bibbity-bobbity, doggy-dooing Jesus freak, who ludicrously does a drunken slow dance with Morgan Freeman and Freddy Kruger lookalikes at one point, the actor plops licentiously down on Green’s seesaw of reality and poetry, tilting the scales in favor of the latter and sending the former into the stratosphere.