Over a considerable career playing morally dubious oddballs, Sam Rockwell has specialized in two kinds of liars: con men and the self-deluded (sometimes in tandem). He's done this frequently enough, and well enough, that he shouldn't need an introduction, but of course he does. Despite several indelible performances " Chuck Barris in "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" was one; the dad in last year's eerie "Joshua" was another " an actor like Rockwell operates on the slightly disreputable indie fringe of mainstream stardom.
So does David Gordon Green, Rockwell's director on "Snow Angels" and a filmmaker intent on making movies that defy easy categorization. Or any categorization. What, after all, is "Snow Angels"? It feels like a comedy at first, and is often blackly comedic, but it also reflects a view of the universe in which each human spins alone " and this makes Green's casting of Rockwell all the more ingenious. Or inevitable: As the problematic Glenn Marchand, Rockwell is playing a man who tries to resurrect his marriage and his life by convincing himself he's born-again. Found the Lord. Paved his road to Damascus. In this, he is not just deluding himself. He's trying to con God.
It's a remarkable performance, a high-wire act of intellect and only one part of the ensemble in what is Green's most accessible movie since his well-received 2000 debut " the sui generis "George Washington," in which a group of misfit adolescents seemed to be impersonating a Sophoclean chorus as interpreted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That was a film that got less attention for what it was than what it wasn't " cookie-cutter, teenage angst-drama, or something resembling anything out there. Green's subsequent features, "All the Real Girls" and "Undertow," suffered from the deliberations of a director trying to emulate himself. With "Snow Angels," which is certainly ambitious, Green has shucked off the ghost of himself, and delivered a movie of poignant humor and poetic sadness. With all the ambiguity such a description implies.
Glenn is in the process of being divorced from Annie (Kate Beckinsale), his high school sweetheart who works as a waitress in their wintry small town's Chinese restaurant. There in the kitchen, too, is Arthur Parkinson (Michael Angarano), a likable misfit who might be more socially acceptable if he lost the rose-pink ski cap. But he's a nice kid, with a crush on Annie, his ex-babysitter, and a budding romance with his social equal Lila (Olivia Thirlby). Like Glenn and Annie, Arthur's parents are splitting up, his father, Don (Griffin Dunne) under the sway of a midlife crisis that is dragging him away from wife Louise (Jeannetta Arnette), who seems to be under the sway of some potent pharmaceuticals. To say that stability is elusive in this little corner of the cosmos is to seriously understate the case.
The intersecting planets in this movie's galaxy are en route to a big bang of personal crises instigated by Annie's affair with Nate (Nicky Katt), husband of her best friend, Barb (Amy Sedaris); Glenn's discovery of the affair, and his rapid disintegration " or reintegration " into his former self, his religious reinvention being as ephemeral as snow angels themselves. But everything is fleeting in this story, including love, life and any lock on a reality that doesn't exist in constant flux.
As usual, Green is working with the imaginative cinematographer Tim Orr and much of what propels "Snow Angels" through its morass of human anguish are the arresting images that punctuate each scene. In one sequence, Arthur and his father are talking, and as the conversation hits a wall and the two characters stop short, the camera just keeps moving " which is not just dramatically appropriate but seizes the eye (and body " you reflexively want to go back through space). The strategy of physical/visual engagement in "Snow Angels" keeps the film from getting too cerebral or self-indulgent or self-satisfied, the way an innovative work might when it limits itself to inside the skull.
Despite the foibles that have affected his films, the dramatic image has always been important to Green, who has quite a little cult following, and deserves it. He's developed an infrastructure (the mainstay being his producer, Lisa Muskat) that has accomplished the nearly unthinkable: a real career, for a young director possessed of an actual aesthetic and a mission of rethinking movies. Don't believe the Sundancey hype: There aren't that many like him out there.
Snow Angels (110 minutes, at Landmark's Bethesda Row) is rated R for violence, profanity and adult situations.