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Somber Snow Angels Struggles with Tone

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated Sep 19, 2008
Somber <i>Snow Angels</i> Struggles with Tone

DVD Release Date:  September 16, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  March 21, 2008
Rating:  R (for language, some violent content, brief sexuality and drug use)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  106 min.
Director:  David Gordon Green
Actors:  Sam Rockwell, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Angarano, Amy Sedaris, Griffin Dunne, Jeanetta Arnette

At the cinema, alienated spouses and their emotionally damaged offspring have become more common ever since American Beauty in 1999. Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening struck a chord with the public in that movie, which won Spacey a Best Actor Oscar and took home the prize for Best Picture. The film was troubling in that it celebrated irresponsibility and hedonism. Its most touching element was the budding romance between the couple’s daughter and a young man to whom she feels a connection.

In 2005, a much more lacerating film about the breakup of a marriage, The Squid and the Whale, showed the dissolution of the marital union through the eyes of one of the couple’s sons. The film is a devastating portrait of adult selfishness and the confusion it brings in the lives of those forced into emotional maturity before their time.

Now comes another smaller-scale picture of broken marriages and a teenage boy trying to come to terms with tragic circumstances. Director David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels is a refreshing break from the inconsequential—and often incompetent—recent cinematic output now playing at the local multiplex, but it’s not entirely successful on its own terms. Although it raises interesting questions about the nature of Christian faith and belief, the film is ultimately too grim, not to mention too explicit in its violence and implied teen sexuality.

Sam Rockwell, in an excellent performance, stars as Glenn, a husband estranged from his wife, Annie (Kate Beckinsale), but trying, with God’s help, to win her back. Annie’s distrust of Glenn is established early in the film, with hints that Glenn has had an emotionally unstable past. We slowly learn that Glenn had unsuccessfully attempted suicide when Annie first left him, but had an epiphany in the immediate aftermath and became a born-again Christian.

Darker hints lead to other revelations. “Daddy’s not drinking beer anymore,” Glenn tells his daughter, who he sees infrequently. He’s reformed, and his boss at the carpet warehouse where he works is eager to discuss the Bible with Glenn. But when Glenn’s suspicions about Annie seeing another man are confirmed, he shows up at her house drunk and looking for a fight.

In a related storyline, the film introduces Arthur (Michael Angarano), a high-school student who works at a Chinese restaurant with Annie, who babysat him when he was a young boy. At school, Arthur befriends Lila (Olivia Thirlby). Their budding romance provides Arthur with a refuge from the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, as his father (Griffin Dunne) chases after another woman. Arthur tells others that his mom blames him for her separation from his father, although his dad asserts that the separation has nothing to do with Arthur. Annie’s life, meanwhile, is threatened not only by Glenn’s instability but by her own destructive choice in taking up with a friend’s spouse.

This is a heavy adult drama with admirable performances, but a downward arc that leaves viewers feeling helpless and despairing. Its dramatic integrity is hurt by a few humorous sequences that provide little relief and seem forced, perhaps as a sop to Beckinsale fans who may purchase a ticket based on her performances in mainstream films like Serendipity, only to discover the harrowing subject matter at the heart of Snow Angels is no laughing matter.

Christians may be hung up on how the filmmakers portray Glenn’s faith, but the Christian element of Snow Angels is not a problem. Glenn’s desperation reveals a struggle with the old man (Ephesians 4:22) that followers of Christ will understand, although they will be disappointed with Glenn’s inability to find the peace he seeks. His simply spoken prayers early in the film give way, after a tragic turn in the story, to conversations with God that are full of conflict. He finds it in his heart to forgive certain people, but not his wife. “I’m trying,” he says, but “she makes it hard.” He asks God how he should respond to tragedy, even as he confesses to God that he has “bad, bad dreams.”

The film climaxes with a horrific act, but ends with a faint glimmer of possible reconciliation and hope. Most viewers won’t find it sufficient solace after the sorrow and downward spiral that precedes it.

Though appropriately chilly, Snow Angels doesn’t take viewers to celestial heights. It leaves them a little bit sadder, but not any wiser.

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  • Language/Profanity:  Lord’s name taken in vain; multiple profanities; reference to “born-again bulls—t.”
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Kids get high; Glenn says he’s no longer drinking but falls off the wagon.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Marital unfaithfulness; man and in woman in bed, scantily clad, discuss their spouses; teenage boy discusses love-making fantasy; a man prays in his underwear; teenagers have implied oral sex, the girl then sleeps over, and the boy’s mother speaks approvingly about it the next morning.
  • Violence:  Verbal reference to a previous suicide attempt; two men brawl; a young child disappears and is suspected of being abducted; self-destructive, drunken behavior; a man violently kills a woman; a suicide; brief images of human carnage.
  • Religion:  Grace is said in Jesus’ name; Glenn testifies to religious rebirth; he discusses the Bible with a work supervisor and prays to God for help in coping with the breakup of his marriage; while selling carpet, he asks two customers if they believe in Jesus; he washes his wife’s feet.