Heavenly Feature

rex snowangels1h Heavenly FeatureSNOW ANGELS
Running time 106 minutes
Written by David Gordon Green and Stewart O’Nan
Directed by David Gordon Green
Starring Sam Rockwell, Kate Beckinsale and Amy Sedaris

Sam Rockwell is such an inventive and convertible chameleon that I guess it’s obvious why he hasn’t achieved the jumbo stardom he deserves. Gently hanging back while other guys do stupid things to hog headlines; researching every role, from the historic context to the visible body language of the character he’s playing; hiding his mercurial good looks behind whatever physical peculiarities the work demands, he is, not surprisingly, continually taken for granted by audiences. He walks in and steals other people’s movies on tiptoe, and sometimes nobody even notices what he’s contributed until the scene is over. Whether he’s playing nutty, flamboyant Chuck Barris, the quietest member of the Jesse James gang, or the psychologically tortured yuppie father of a demon seed child, he crushes you with gentle, understated power. He reminds me of the beneath-the-title second stringers in the good old days: Lloyd Bridges, acting his muscles off with Kim Stanley on Playhouse 90 one week, stalking his way through High Noon the next and ending up rich on Sea Hunt—or Sterling Hayden, tall in the saddle on Monday, plotting a crime in The Asphalt Jungle on Wednesday and smacking Bette Davis around by the weekend. These are the durables. Their careers don’t end until they reach the cemetery.

And so it is with Mr. Rockwell. You’ll see what I mean if you check out David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels, an intimate tragedy of small-town anguish in which he plays Glenn, a divorced husband and failed father who can’t get his life on any kind of track that leads in the direction of responsibility. His ex-wife, Annie (Kate Beckinsale), works with her best friend, Barb (Amy Sedaris), in a Chinese restaurant where she takes a maternal interest in the town misfit (Michael Angarano), who plays trombone in the high-school band and whose father (Griffin Dunne) teaches classes on “the importance of fungus in the ecosystem.” Annie is so unhappy that against her better judgement she’s been having an affair with Barb’s husband, Nate (Nicky Katt). As their lives become more intertwined, we wait for the inevitable disasters to come. Ultimately they do, in a portrait of American ennui that culminates in one horrible, emotional train wreck of a winter’s day.

The terrific ensemble cast, like high-strung champion horses, moves in and out of unbearable situations from adultery and guilt to grief, death and suicide without a trace of mawkish sentimentality. But it is Sam Rockwell who rivets and holds attention as a man overcome with helplessness, a history of mental problems, the inability to hold down a job and a dangerous escape into born-again religious hysteria that orchestrates his eventual self-destruction. He plays weakness and desperation with a wrenching rage; he’s sad and empty, but he makes it impossible to give up on him. His performance is that memorable.

Snow Angels is hard to forget, too. It’s one of the most relentlessly honest and bleakly disturbing mirrors to American despair since American Beauty, at half the price.