Snow Angels, David Gordon Green's captivating winter-chill tragedy, is a tale that encompasses murder, divorce, adultery, alcohol abuse, mental breakdown, and the disappearance of a small child. In other words, it's downbeat enough to make the recent Oscar-nominated films look like party games. Yet as adapted from a novel by Stewart O'Nan, Snow Angels is such a fascinating smorgasbord of flawed behavior that it exerts the voyeuristic pull of a first-rate small-town soap opera. The one thing you can count on is that each new scene will reveal something about the people on screen that you weren't expecting to see.
This is Green's fourth film, after George Washington, All the Real Girls, and Undertow, and it's by far his best. In the opening scene, a high school marching band is rehearsing its slightly discombobulated version of Peter Gabriel's ''Sledgehammer,'' the missed notes and slapdash choreography unfolding with pitch-perfect banality until two gunshots ring out from the woods nearby. The film then leaps back several weeks to lay out the events that led up to those shots being fired. Arthur (Michael Angarano), a trombonist in the band, is our entry point into the story. He's a gawky, sweet kid whose folks are splitting up, and though we can see the pain it's caused him, the real problem is that Don (Griffin Dunne), his professor father, can't make up his mind about whether he wants to leave or not.
The fate that binds splintered couples is the driving theme of Snow Angels. At the heart of the movie is the far more volatile relationship of Annie (Kate Beckinsale), a desperate beauty who works in a Chinese restaurant where (amusingly) there isn't a Chinese employee in sight, and Glenn (Sam Rockwell), her estranged husband and the father of their 4-year-old daughter. An eager, shambling narcissist, Glenn is a recovering drunk and born-again Christian who keeps trying to do the right thing like hold a job but he's one of those karmic losers who drags more trouble around with him the more he tries to swat it away. Rockwell cooks up a complex, deceptively lighthearted portrait of a flake who caves in to something tormented.
Snow Angels has an open-eyed curiosity and dread, with each scene punctuated by fresh psychological undercurrents. Beckinsale, at first, seems miscast (you have to get past her cosmopolitan aura), but she gives a searing and wide-awake performance as a woman trying to rise above the mess she's made of her life. Green maps out the intricate layered links among small-town characters (Annie used to be Arthur's babysitter), making this community a vibrant, troubled place, driven by hope as well as despair. The bond between Arthur and the cute geek of a newcomer he meets at school (the terrific Olivia Thirlby) is one of the most unaffected teen romances I've ever seen in a film. Ultimately, though, the frayed connections give way to guilt, loss, anger, and violence. You may be devastated, but you won't look away. A