You know you’re in the hands of a director who won’t be making familiar, obvious choices from the opening moments of this remarkable movie. A high school band is attempting halfheartedly to rehearse a Peter Gabriel song while marching in choreographed formation and failing comically at both. The band’s director, Mr. Chervenick, is played by Tom Noonan, an actor best remembered for his harrowing portrayal of the serial killer in 1988’s Manhunter (the picture that introduced the character of Hannibal Lecter to the world). Twenty years later his mood has, if anything, grown more sour. Apoplectic, Noonan’s character unleashes upon his students one of the strangest inspirational rants in screen history. “People,” he bellows, “do you have a sledgehammer in your heart?” Then, just when you think you’ve settled in for some kind of quirky teen comedy, two shotgun blasts ring out from the woods not far away.
Which might lead you to the conclusion that writer-director David Gordon Green’s latest is not a quirky teen comedy after all, but rather a dark, small-town tragedy propelled by themes of family dysfunction, mental breakdown, betrayal and violence. The intriguing thing is that it manages, somewhat miraculously, to be both. Imagine a cinematic cross-breeding of Juno and In the Bedroom, and you’ll have a pretty fair genetic profile of Snow AngelsSnow Angelsbecause I’m a fan of David Gordon Green’s work. This is his fourth film and the first I’ve seen. The truth is, the only other releases hitting town the same weekend were Made of Honor and Iron Man, and if there’s anything I’m drawn to less than dopey romantic comedies, it’s comic-book adaptations. But, while I may not have chosen it on the basis of its merits, I was pleasantly surprised to discover Green’s new film possesses so many.
The director draws artful, affecting performances from his cast, the writing and camerawork are first rate, and Green has rearranged the novel’s narrative furniture in such a way as to heighten both the poignancy and suspense of the source material. Now that summer blockbusters have begun trickling into the cineplex, there may be limited interest in such chilly scenes of winter. If you ask me, though, movie-making as gripping and gimmick-free as this is never out of season.