In movies, all happy couples are alike: they don't exist. The cinematic notion of a contended man and wife, gliding through life on a cloud of kisses, kind words and double martinis, pretty much died out with Nick and Nora Charles 60 years ago. Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the crime caper with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, is about as close as you could come lately, and they kept trying to kill each other. Maybe wedded happiness is considered static, undramatic, a minuet of compromises. It could also be that depicting the satisfaction of people over 30 just doesn't appeal to the audience demographic; the young may think that anyone who's settled for living with someone else is either miserable or deserves to be. Whatever the reason, connubial bliss in pictures doesn't hold a candle to connubial blisters. The only movie marriages to hold our interest are the ones that are falling apart.
That, anyway, is the conclusion to be drawn from two new indie films opening today in New York and, a little later, around the country. In the just-OK Married Life, a cheating husband schemes to be permanently rid of his longtime wife. Snow Angels, the one you should track down, has nothing but unhappy marriages, some of them slowly, painfully, disintegrating, and one ready to blow up.
To sketch the plot of Married Life is to make the movie seem more provocative than it turns out to be. Drab, middle-age Harry (Chris Cooper) confides to his spiffy friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan) that he's fallen in love with young, blond Kay (Rachel McAdams). The inconvenience is Harry's wife Pat (Patricia Clarkson); he still cares for the old girl, and it would kill her to see her hurt. So he'll have to kill her. That's the recipe for a fine thriller, of old or new fashion, and the attractive cast has their hooks in you from Reel One.
The story, from John Bingham's novel Five Roundabouts to Heaven, was first dramatized in 1962 for an Alfred Hitchcock Hour called "The Tender Poisoner," with Dan Dailey as the husband, Jan Sterling as the wife and Howard Duff as the friend. Here, in the script that director Ira Sachs has written with Oren Moverman, the tale in set in the late '40s prime time for film noir, whose shadowy contours and sleek period architecture the Sachs movie mimes. Of late, noir has often been pretzeled into post-modernism: by Joel and Ethan Coen in The Man Who Wasn't There, by Todd Haynes in Far from Heaven, by Robert Rodriguez in Sin City. Each of these built on the viewer's familiarity with the form to play with and subvert it, to create a new, gnarled noir.
MINOR SPOILER ALERT: Married Life's twist on the genre is that there is no twist. You keep waiting for the irony to kick in, but the characters just plod through the purgatory they've created for themselves. More a case history than a devious puzzle, the movie is like a story overheard from the next restaurant booth: for all your curiosity as to how it turns out, you're not likely to have much personal investment in the people. Actually, Married Life doesn't suck. Its actors lend conviction to their roles, and the film looks classy, like a visit to my favorite Greenwich Village Deco furniture store (Adelaide, on West Tenth Street). But the film doesn't soar either. Finally, it's only about as interesting as...married life.
Snow Angels is built on the same yearnings and desperation, the same threat of eventual violence; but, happily, it has an emotional density that trumps its familiarity. Winter is approaching in a small town where the high school band teacher (a brief role played with curt comic brio by Tom Noonan) shouts challenges at the students: "Do you have a sledgehammer in your heart? Are you ready to be my sledgehammer?" The hammers of hell beat in the hearts of these frosty folk; for Snow Angels, like a bunch of other films set in cold climates (The Ice Storm, The Sweet Hereafter, Affliction, A Simple Plan, Fargo, this year's Sundance winner Frozen River), is about people who will do anything to get warm, even if it means getting burned. Cheating on their spouses, for a start; and for one doomed family, a lot worse.
Here's the town's topography of restlessness. Annie (Kate Beckinsale) has split from her husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell) after a stormy marriage that spawned four-year-old Tara (Grace Hudson) and a judge's ruling of Glenn's spousal abuse. She works in a diner with Barb (Amy Sedaris) and is having an affair with Barb's husband Nate (Nicky Katt). Also at the diner is teenage Arthur (Michael Angarano), whose parents have split and who has had a crush on Annie since she was his baby sitter. Most of the denizens of this working-class town are searching to get or keep jobs most people would flee from making the mortgage or feeding the kids is for them as great a quest as anything Frodo ever faced. That, and putting a down payment on a little emotional security. A congenial body in a motel-room bed can keep the chill away; a congenial heart may be too much to hope for.
Director David Gordon Green, whose script came from Stewart O'Nan's novel, has navigated these slippery shoals before. Green's George Washington, made in 2000, when he was just 25, plunged deep into the inarticulate depths of preteen love; and his All the Right Girls brought the same meticulous, poetic attention on college-age kids. Snow Angels, though seemingly broader and more conventional, has the Green love of repeated behavioral detail. We see a woman run her fingers through her hair and, moments later, her son does the same; an estranged couple faces each other, edgily she with her hands folded, he with his hands in his pockets. They've been together so long, and know each other so well, that even in anger their gestures rhyme.
In fact, they aren't so much people we see in movies as people we know. They stare at the TV, pretending fascination with a game show as a way of avoiding either a conversation that's sure to turn prickly or a long night of sullen introspection. They offer old doggerel like Eleanor Roosevelt's "Yesterday is history, tomorrow's a mystery, today's a gift. That's why they call it the present" as eternal wisdom. The men in Snow Angels have the appetites of the philanderers they see in movies but not the suave patter; a cheating husband in this town is unprepared for the inevitable lies or evasions he'll need when his wife finds out. When confronted with his indiscretions, Nate can only sputter, "Wh- why would I do that?" or the even more pathetic "Huh?" It's as if, in real life, the screenwriters are always on strike.
That's Green's gift: to show how people learn codes of affection and aggression from watching movies, but when they try to pull them off in crucial situations they come out awkward, embarrassed and futile. The threat of domestic tragedy looms over Snow Angels, suggesting some exotic blend of Peyton Place and Twin Peaks; but its triumph is in portraying folks who, no matter how often they flail and fail, keep reaching out for human connection.
The film's success is due in large part to actors who are both faithful to all the social minutiae and seductive enough to keep you watching. Rockwell mostly plays down the spiraling anxiety of his character (though it would be nice if some movie, any movie, had a devout Christian who was not a psycho killer). Beckinsale, the dark lady of the Underworld films, does her sharpest work yet as the town beauty who's spoiling from abuse and ill use. "I don't want to spend the rest of my life taking care of people," Annie says. "I want to take care of myself." After a decade or two of tangling with weak or dangerous men, she has had it with married life. Making it on her own, she decides, could bring something like happiness.