Over the last eight or so years, young director David Gordon Green has, in relative obscurity, become one of the most emotionally arresting, quietly unconventional voices in contemporary American cinema. Picking up where Terrence Malick left off circa 1974, Green's first two films—the celebrated (if seldom seen) George Washington and All the Real Girls—were contemporary Southern meditations, told with hushed, atmospheric landscapes and patient, stream-of-consciousness dialogue. With Snow Angels, his first film since the critically and commercially slept-on Undertow, the indie auteur attempts to marry elements of his incredibly singular world with a more traditional narrative—with satisfying, if occasionally awkward, results.
"I wanted Snow Angels to be a departure in a lot of ways," explains the writer/director (and adult braces wearer), in town recently for a Portland International Film Festival-related press junket. "It's my first film based on a book, so there was a roadmap of what happens—and a depth of character that I'd never really considered before. I also wanted it to be a departure from the South—I knew I wanted to go someplace cold."
Physically speaking, that cold place is sleepy suburban Pennsylvania: the white-swept and rusted cousin to the monochromatic South of Green's previous films. Based on a novel by Stewart O'Nan, Snow Angels weaves together several weeks in the life of a teenage boy (Michael Angarano), his former babysitter (a surprisingly solid Kate Beckinsale), and her estranged, alcoholic, and newly born-again husband (Sam Rockwell) as they each attempt to reconcile themselves with freshly felt tragedy. Locale aside, it's also much colder in tone than its predecessors—abandoning the romantic, fleeting lyricism so ingrained with the feel of Green's previous films for a more darkened depth of character, and a much bleaker whole.
"When I go back and watch my other films," Green admits, "a lot of it just feels so mannered and intentionally poetic, and sometimes pretentious and overly stylized. They were written very stream of consciousness, almost in a disposable way—where you can take out any scene and you don't need it. There is very little in those movies that's essential to telling the story, because there's really not that much of a story. With Snow Angels, I really did try to take some kind of technical consideration as to how the story was constructed," he says, then laughs. "Which is something that I usually ignore."
The result of Green's newfound professionalism is still somewhat uneven—tainting the largely powerful film with the faint scent of transition. Snow Angels feels at times like two disparate acts from completely different plays—the first half is a flatly conventional suburban drama, and the second is... well... a David Gordon Green film. What on paper sounds perhaps like it might be an intentional upset of traditional dramatic narrative seems on screen to more likely be Green's struggle to marry the strengths of his aesthetic with more palatable, commercial enterprises. (For further evidence of Green's current commercial jones, one need look no further than the director's next unlikely project: the latest Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen stoner flick, Pineapple Express.) When it works—as it does most of the time—it works masterfully (beautifully static tracking shots, long wordless takes, etc.); when it doesn't, Green's world just seems out of place and unwieldy.