(Warner Independent) Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Michael Angarano, Olivia Thirlby, Griffin Dunne, Jeannetta Arnette, Nicky Katt, Amy Sedaris. Directed by David Gordon Green
Love can be a double edged sword. When love is good, there is nothing better in the world. You feel like you can take on any challenge, accomplish any goal. When love goes bad however, it can turn on you savagely and eviscerate your very soul.
In a small Pennsylvania town, snow is a blanket that hides the unpleasant things that simmer just below the surface. Annie (Beckinsale) is trying to raise her toddler daughter by herself, having left her husband Glenn (Rockwell) after too many drunken nights. He has found Christianity and clings to it like a drowning man to a life preserver, seeing it as a way out – not so much of his drinking but a route back to his family.
Arthur (Angarano) works at the same Chinese restaurant as Annie, who used to be his babysitter and who he still has a crush on. He is a teenager busy with the things of high school; hanging out with his friends, playing in the marching band, preparing to college. His mother (Arnette) and father (Dunne) are in the process of splitting up. He turns to Lila (Thirlby), a friend who is something of an outsider for solace; their relationship deepens into something more.
Annie is a mess. She’s having an affair with the husband (Katt) of her best friend (Sedaris) and battles her mother, who is anxious for her to reconcile with her husband. Glenn, in the meantime, is battling his demons and losing the fight. It doesn’t take a genius in the human condition to figure out that a tragedy is fast approaching and the leads are far too busy staring at the rear-view and side mirrors to see what’s in front of them.
Green is one of the most acclaimed directors on the indie scene and this is the first of his four directorial efforts that he has based on an outside source (a Stuart O’Nan novel). In lesser hands, this could have been a standard small town Midwinter tragedy, one of many out there. Green has a great ear for dialogue, and every character manages to sound authentic. He also has a great sense of his characters. He doesn’t allow them to descend to cliches, but he doesn’t allow them to be anything less than sympathetic. He also casts them near-perfectly.
Beckinsale, mostly known for her role as a vampire in the Underworld series, shines here. She plays a woman who has had a life filled with bad choices and who has endured the curse of being a beautiful woman in a small town. Small towns tend to magnify things, simply because there is so little competition for conversation. She’s struggling to break free of the corner she’s painted herself into, but the angels of her lesser nature tend to overwhelm the angels of her better nature. I had not known Beckinsale for her acting ability so much as for looking awesome in a vinyl catsuit, but I’ve revised my opinion of her.
Rockwell has added another in a long line of truly terrific performances. He is rapidly evolving into one of those actors who can carry a movie by himself, and while he didn’t get much Oscar buzz for this performance (which is a crime in and of itself), he seems destined to win one or more of the coveted trophies at some point. He may not necessarily be the dashing leading man, but he certainly does everyman as well as anybody.
The romance between Angarano and Thirlby is at the center of the movie and provides a sweet counterpoint to the collapsing relationships that belong to the adults of the movie. It is ironic that the best relationship in the movie belongs to the youngest people in it, which sticks a bit in my craw. So often the movies tend to portray teenage relationships as superior to adult ones, but the fact is that teenagers are at least as prone to treating each other like dirt as adults are. Still, Angarano and Thirlby handle their roles skillfully, and some of the best moments in the film belong to them.
The sense of impending tragedy is certainly palpable, but it isn’t central to the experience of the film. The denouement, foreshadowed in the film’s opening moments, is not the point of the journey, merely a terrible sight on it. The journey is the one taken by the characters, trying desperately to interact with the others in their lives and failing miserably. We all have relationships like that, ruined by our own inability to articulate how we feel and what we want – sometimes because we ourselves don’t know how we feel or what we want.
The snow can hide all matter of sins, but blood will inevitably show up starkly against the serene whiteness of a winter landscape. My wife is fond of saying “your sins will find you out” and so they will. This is not so much a movie about sin, but about the aftermath of sin and the flotsam it generates. It’s a powerful look at the underbelly of what are generally good people, and how their moments of weakness resonate through the lives that surround them.
WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Rockwell, Beckinsale, Angarano and Thirlby are worth watching. Green is one of the best dialogue writers in independent films today. The characters are flawed but relatable.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The characterization of Glenn as a born-again Christian may offend those who are Christians or struggling with alcoholism.
FAMILY VALUES: Some drug use, sexuality, foul language and violence. Suitable for mature teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This movie was originally written by Green for another director; when that director moved on to another property, the production company asked Green to direct it.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
FINAL RATING: 8/10