Tuesday, April 1, 2008
My review of David Gordon Green's latest. Check it below and here.
"Precious" is how some critics have described the films of David Gordon Green. Earnest is what they really are—nakedly and unabashedly so, like the stolen pages of a young poet's diary. Call me a gushing, naïve fanboy, but I can scarcely see what's not to like about George Washington, All the Real Girls, and Undertow, those tender, lyrical paeans to long summers, first romances, and the mysterious natural wonders of the deep South. Though well into his 30s, Green seems innately attuned to the rapid heartbeats of teen lovers, to the joys and pratfalls and emotional uncertainty of adolescence. Much to the chagrin of haters, he's been compared to Terrence Malick, and, indeed, at their best, the filmmaker's sprawling mood pieces evoke the innocent clarity and child-like wonder of Days of Heaven, as though they had been plucked directly from the growing minds of their young narrators. Such age-defying sensitivity is a rare, special quality in a filmmaker of any generation. So why are so many critics treating it like a four-letter word? Is it too much to ask that the oldest wunderkind this side of Michel Gondry not abandon his youthful ethos just yet?
Snow Angels, Green’s long-delayed fourth feature, feels like just that: an abandonment—not just of the filmmaker’s ethos, but of his distinctively woozy romanticism, the supposed “preciousness” that’s come to define his work. In a calculated bid for respectability, Green is now loudly insisting that his own golden-hued days of heaven are over, and that the cold weather of his adulthood has finally rolled in. Me, I’m not so sure this boy wonder is ready to grow up. Shattered dreams and broken homes, death and discontent—Snow Angels is one those tapestries of small-town malaise, a tangled web connecting the miserable lives of miserable souls, linked to each other by way of betrayal, infidelity, and the shared burden of tragedies old and new. It’s also the latest Altman-aping ensemble—can’t you wait to see how it all comes together?—but Green is no Robert Altman. Hell, he’s not even Paul Thomas Anderson doing Robert Altman. He’s a poet not a novelist, and this material required the shrewd, brutal insight of a John Updike, not the romantic haze of an Allen Tate. If hardly a disaster, Snow Angels illuminates the folly of working against one’s natural gifts and inclinations, of trying to be something one’s not, of rushing headfirst into the realm of what Manny Farber would call White Elephant Art.
Green, of course, has always been a Termite Artist—hungry, idealistic, and, until now, refreshingly resistant to cramming Big Messages down his audience’s throat. Much has already been made of him packing his bags and leaving the backwoods of North Carolina, relocating his unique, dreamy brand of rural melancholia north of the Mason-Dixon line. Yet the writer-director’s understanding of small town politics—of the way communities shift and sway, the way familiar folk laugh and fight and love and fuck—transcends Red State/Blue State boundaries. With Snow Angels, the important change is not regional, but seasonal: Green’s summers, all muggy, sun-drenched days and brilliant, endless nights, are but a distant memory in this icy landscape. Here, in some working-class, New England hamlet, winter is everywhere—in the trees, the streets, and the wounded hearts of unhappy lovers. A year after separating from his wife, Glenn (Sam Rockwell) has become something of a born-again charity case, half-heartedly scrounging for odd jobs, as committed to the bottle as he is to the Good Book. He periodically harasses his ex, Annie (Kate Beckinsale), who’s saddled with the responsibility of both politely fending off his advances and raising their 3-year-old daughter on her lonesome. She works at a local Chinese restaurant with Barb (Amy Sedaris), whose husband she’s having an affair with, and aww-shucks teen cherub Arthur (Michael Angarano), who she used to baby-sit when she was a teenager. Oh, and Arthur’s parents? Why, they’re getting divorced, too. In this sleepy, nameless, football-loving corner of Middle America, love always goes sour and secrets big and small don’t stay secret for long—like the stag beetles of Blue Velvet, they burst violently from the soil, scattering across the frozen ground, leaving no life unblemished by disgrace or humiliation.
A bitter pill to swallow, this one—particularly from a filmmaker as heretofore hopeful and boldly humanistic as David Gordon Green. Like a connect-the-dots version of We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Snow Angels draws straight lines between its various middle-aged screw-ups, implicating them all in some sort of grand mosaic of marital/communal breakdown. But these lines of connection are thinly, almost arbitrarily sketched. Tellingly, the film is based on a novel, and you can sense what’s missing in every scene, that weight of history and character and context that comes so easy on the written page, but is harder to bottle and contain onscreen. Green's movies take place in a vividly vibrant here and now, whirlwinds of emotion cocooning his narratives in a perpetual present tense—they’re like snap-shots of life, unfolding in a brilliant, highly subjective real time. With Snow Angels, he rarely casts that kind of magnetic, of-the-moment spell, nor does he create a believable sense of then, the mere feeling that any of his characters have as complicated a back-story as they allude to.
It doesn’t help, of course, that the film is anchored by two incredibly uneven lead performances. As an actress, Beckinsale strikes a fierce pose in skin-tight leather, blasting werewolves with flippancy and ice-cold composure. Ask her to play a real human being, though, and the results are a tad less convincing. Here, decked out in fabulously plain “working mom” attire, she’s like a movie star slumming it in the boonies, feigning normalcy while she waits for her agent to call. Her agony in the third act feels like a total put-on, shrill crocodile tears for a life left in shambles. Rockwell, on the other hand, appears to be acting on an entirely different plane, as though he had wandered in from another movie, maybe the latest histrionic melodrama from Alejandro Iñárritu. As the alcoholic, unstable Glenn, Rockwell strains and tugs at the expressively naturalistic dialogue, trying on nervous affectations like they’re going out of style. It's a compulsively watchable performance, but one that buckles under the weight of unreasonable requirements. Green forces numerous embarrassments upon the actor, be it one too many pathetic, drunk soliloquies, or—in the film’s most surreal and utterly ludicrous sequence—an endless slow-dance with an old woman dressed exactly like Freddy Kruger.
Green regards Annie and Glenn—those dour lost souls, beaten down by love and life—with a kind of perplexed ambivalence. They're such a far cry from the bright-eyed dreamers of his last three pictures, and he doesn't so much feel their pain as run stylistic laps around it, restlessly gussying up even the quietest moments with jarring zooms and glaring shifts in focus. These nervous aesthetic tics save Snow Angels from anonymous, prestige indie hell, but they also reveal the uneasy hand of a distracted auteur, trying desperately to put his mark on alien material. Green's never seemed less conscious of what's going on onscreen than the moment when he tracks right on through a walking conversation between Arthur and his father (Griffin Dunne), scarcely pausing to make heads or tails of what's going on between them. If such displays of formal trickery render the director’s style showy and superfluous, there’s no denying that they also make for some striking individual scenes, arresting reminders of the visual/sonic poetry Green is still capable of. An awful discovery in the woods. A tender sex scene, all jump cuts and non-synchronous dialogue. A gorgeous, celebratory coda that feels blissfully out-of-sync with the dreary nonsense that came before it. Getting lost in these rapturous moments out of time, one can’t help but wish they were the meat of the movie, not pleasant diversions on the way to a senselessly tragic Big Finish.
Green’s heart just isn’t in all this. He’d rather be chasing fireflies in late August than spending his winter vacation cooped up with these sad sacks. Like a distraught kid trying to make sense of his parents' divorce, the filmmaker’s in over his head. He can't really tell us what went wrong between Annie and Glenn—the mechanics of madness and sorrow, the complicated tensions that tear lives and marriages asunder, are as mysterious to him as they are to Arthur. It's not surprising, then, that the only truly credible element of Snow Angels—the one place where Green's hand feels steady and sure—is the puppy love subplot. At school, Arthur connects with the nerdy-cute new girl (Juno’s Olivia Thirlby), and the two tiptoe, with awkward hesitation, into a gentle romance. This is Green at his charmingly sincere best, working his All the Real Girls magic, playing beautifully to his own strengths. As an artist, he understands the way that the young fall in love—the clumsy and messy, sweet and wonderful things that grow in the hearts of the adolescent smitten. What he doesn't understand just yet is the ways that the old and the bitter drift apart, the way that affection can decay into contempt as the years stack up. Green's still got the glowing naiveté of youth, and, at the risk of taking more heat from cynical critics, I recommend he chase that feeling. The weight of adulthood will crash down on him eventually. Why rush into it?