Snow Angels, the fourth feature by the preternaturally visually gifted, yet often narratively scattershot filmmaker David Gordon Green almost begs to be disliked. Forgoing the burnt-out rural environs that enveloped his first three features and in no small way contributed to their positive critical reception (city critics alternately love and hate the outsider), Green here attempts not just his first literary adaptation (of a terribly grim novel by Stewart O’Nan), but one that required a move North of the Mason-Dixon line for the first time in his filmmaking career. This geographic shift wouldn’t be terribly notable if the contemporary South, and the pockets of visual beauty he searched out there, hadn’t represented as fully formed a character in his oeuvre as any of those portrayed by his actors.
David Gordon Green shows his condescending hand early in Snow Angels. A high school marching band plays slovenly and moves in lockstep to a familiar-sounding pop hit on a football field in the cool winter air of some Everysuburb, USA. This might be a cozy sight of the Norman Rockwell variety, but a bespectacled and pained band instructor (Tom Noonan) doesn’t like what he sees and gathers his students to impart the necessity of discipline and impassioned performance. “Do you have a sledgehammer in your heart? Because I have a sledgehammer in my heart. Are you ready to be my sledgehammer?” he yells, and that’s when we not only recall the tune but also know the jig is up. Green essentially confesses that he doesn’t really give a shit about the reality of his sleepy Pennsylvania suburb or the characters that dwell in it; not even the attendant heft of a distant gunshot that interrupts Noonan’s speech—foreshadowing the film’s tortured melodrama and predictable tragedy to come—can compensate. This supposed joke (some stodgy old dork is deadpanning Peter Gabriel!) and Snow Angels‘ other pathetic attempts at ironic and/or above-it-all quaintness are no better than the “random” signifiers of cutesiness that have been eating away like a cancer at this country’s independent filmmaking ever since Rushmore, only they’re insultingly padded with the Green stamp of ponderous melancholy.