The new David Gordon Green movie begins the same way his first movies have: promisingly. In the characteristically beguiling opening sequence, a small-town school marching band rehearses a half-hearted version of Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" on a football field. It's messy, but it's pretty, with the camera zooming in on the underwhelmed music teacher ("Do you have a sledgehammer in your heart, because I have a sledgehammer in my heart!"). Then we hear gunshots. Bang. Bang. Bang. The kids look yonder, puzzled. The music stops. The movie is dead.
Adapted from Stewart O' Nan's 2003 novel, "Snow Angels" promptly jumps back three weeks and does its best to explain (despite appearances to the contrary, it's not a school shooting). But the movie is never as special or charmingly odd as those prefatory minutes. A lot of the film - although not enough - focuses on Arthur (Michael Angarano), the shaggy trombonist in the band and a waiter at a diner. His parents (Jeannetta Arnette, Griffin Dunne) are splitting up, while he's exploring a crush on a girl in his class (Olivia Thirlby, Juno's best friend). She and Angarano contribute the film's only loveliness as two kids on the local train to his bed.
Green juggles between the lower key of Arthur's upheavals and the higher pitched dysfunction involving his co-worker and former baby sitter, Annie (Kate Beckinsale). The movie quickly turns into a slog about a couple of exes. Annie and Glenn (Sam Rockwell) have broken up, but he can't bring himself to let go. We learn enough about Glenn to glean that until very recently he used to drink. He's unstable. Behind his toothy, nervous smile, there's something stormy. Annie left him, in part, because she was scared for herself and their daughter. Now she's sleeping with a married friend (Nicky Katt). Glenn tries to clean himself up anyway, to be the man she needs him to be. But he seems pathologically feckless.
So does Green. "Snow Angels" becomes less convincing as it drags toward its grisly climax. This is a movie about ferocious women and weak, passive men. More and more, Green's filmmaking seems just as ineffectual as the men do. At 32, he's a director who seems to prematurely have run out of things to say. His movies - "George Washington," "All the Real Girls," and "Undertow" were the previous three - have grown progressively monotonous. Even the idiosyncratic generational solipsism of "Real Girls" has turned fatuous and dull - full of stale air. Where are the life and authenticity, the mysteriousness and naturalism that made "George Washington" seem like the start of something very good?
The man who made "George Washington" appeared to be well on his way to making, say, "There Will Be Blood," or even "Southland Tales," to swinging a wrecking ball. But like some other young American directors, Green's arms may not be long enough to reach for the stars, his dreams may be no more ambitious than these mid-level Sundance formulas.
With "Snow Angels," he appears to be concentrating on performance. Beckinsale and Rockwell do, indeed, yell up a storm. But this is a movie straining hard for thunder, when grace appears to come to it so naturally. I left as frustrated as that band teacher is at the beginning of the movie. Enough with these meek, banal exercises, David Gordon Green. Hit me with the sledgehammer in your heart.