Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale, in 'Snow Angels'

Dir. David Gordon Green
(R) ★ ★ ★ ★

We’re hooked from the opening scene. During winter in an unspecified small town, a marching band listens to what is meant to be an inspiring speech from their band leader (Tom Noonan). “Will you be my sledgehammer?” he asks them, with an improbably straight face. Band members Arthur (Michael Angarano) and Warren (Connor Paolo) snicker to each other. Then BLAM! BLAM! Two loud noises in the distance. Gunshots? Yes, gunshots. In a town this small the sound likely reverberates all the way to the city limits. The remainder of the film will recount the events that lead inexorably to those shots.

I rented Snow Angels on a whim. I read an offhand recommendation and added it to my queue. I didn’t even read the synopsis. Written and directed by David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls), based on a novel by Stewart O’Nan, it’s just about perfect in how it shows us the small details of its characters’ lives and then pulls back gradually to show us more and more, until we know them so well it breaks our hearts. The seemingly isolated stories reveal surprising connections, but this isn’t a hyperlink movie like Crash or Babel. It’s just a fact of life in a small town where everyone knows each other; it’s so tightly knit that when there’s a local family crisis they cancel school so the students can help.

We meet Annie and Glenn Marchand separately. She is a waitress at a Chinese food restaurant. He lives with his parents, who wish he would move out already. We learn they have a five-year-old daughter together, Tara (Gracie Hudson), and are estranged in their marriage. The more time we spend with them, the better we understand how deep that estrangement goes. She’s having an affair with a married man; he drinks too much and thinks he’s found Jesus, but she’s afraid to let him spend time with their daughter. Maybe she’s right.

Arthur works in the Chinese restaurant with Annie. She used to babysit him when he was younger, and he still harbors an adolescent crush. What does his story have to do with hers? Not much. He makes a discovery in the ice that is a turning point in both their lives, but he has his own story that’s just as interesting. His mother (Jeannetta Arnette) has kicked his father (Griffin Dunne) out of the house; Arthur later sees his dad cavorting with a younger woman, a relationship that probably started before he moved out, and Arthur asks him to make up his mind about what he wants.

I must take a moment to comment on the performance of Arnette as his mother; she’s so expressive she could tell an entire story without a word of dialogue and expresses the nuances of a relationship with a look. I remember her most vividly as Chloe Sevigny’s mom in Boys Don’t Cry, another film where she demonstrated a complex understanding of a small but pivotal character. I long to see what she could do with a lead role.

Green doesn’t take sides. He doesn’t condone or condemn. He extends tremendous sympathy to his characters, fears for them, aches for them. There is a shot of Glenn in a bar. He is one of the last three patrons, and they are all swaying to music in a drunken stupor; this is what comes after last call. The music drops for a prolonged sequence towards the end of the film as we get closer to an explanation of the gunshots. Green’s patience here is grueling, but there’s no going back. He has drawn the characters so meticulously that the end seems inevitable; every moment leads irrevocably to the next, and it hurtles towards tragedy with a momentum no one can stop.

The actors are so good, so intimate and true that I’m at a loss to explain why they’re not contending for Oscars. We feel as though we’re walking into lives in progress; the characters feel fully formed from the moment we meet them. Annie and Glenn are played by Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell in the best performances I’ve seen them give. Angarano demonstrates sensitivity that makes us believe him when he tells his father what time it is. Amy Sedaris, Olivia Thirlby, and Nicky Katt are lived-in and convincing in supporting roles.

Snow Angels is equal in emotional power to Todd Field’s In the Bedroom. I felt these characters in my bones and sat in quiet reflection as the credits rolled. It is a great film.