Much like Badlands and Days Of Heaven director Terrence Malick, long his primary source of inspiration, director David Gordon Green makes films via a curious and delicate alchemy, which stems from a desire to find the poetry in nature and everyday life. His first two efforts, George Washington and All The Real Girls, require a willingness to indulge a little preciousness to appreciate the offbeat, heightened emotions and gorgeous imagery that set his films apart. Based on Stewart O'Nan's novel, Snow Angels finds Green at war with his material, hamstrung by an intricately constructed plot requiring a kind of discipline that isn't necessarily his strong suit. In spite of strong performances and a characteristically vivid sense of place, the film feels disjointed and heavy; it's a miserablist slog that lacks the transcendent lightness of Green's other work, even as he tries awkwardly to impose his sensibility.
Set in an unspecified small town that time seems to have forgotten, Snow Angels opens with the startling sound of faraway shotgun blasts, then backtracks to explain their origin. Sam Rockwell specializes in playing eccentrics, but he brings a gnawing instability to the role of a born-again Christian and recovering alcoholic who's trying to reconnect with his estranged family. His wife, Kate Beckinsale, a waitress at the local Chinese restaurant, has been seeing another married man (Nicky Katt) and doesn't want Rockwell in her life. Nevertheless, she lets him see their daughter, and he works hard to prove that he can be trusted again. Meanwhile, Beckinsale's teenage co-worker Michael Angarano deals with his parents' recent separation while nurturing a tentative romance with a shy schoolmate (Juno's Olivia Thirlby).
The connections between the two story threads are a little tenuous: Both are set in broken homes, and it's possible to see how high-school sweethearts like Angarano and Thirlby might, with time, grow apart like Rockwell and Beckinsale. Green feels more at home with the younger pair, whose sweet flirtation recalls the romance in All The Real Girls, and he also succeeds at capture the tension between the older couple, who carry a long history that's been frayed by mistrust. But the two parts don't make a cohesive whole; they seem like separate movies smooshed together like kissing cousins, not as intimately acquainted as they need to be. When the chronology circles back around to the gunshots again, the effect is muted when it should be shattering.