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Review: “Snow Cake” (2006)

Snow_CakeLonely people tend to recognize their own kind — in life and especially in independent films. Perhaps there’s a certain scent they give off, the musk of desperation cooled by a trace of sad resignation, or the look in their eyes, a mix of unyielding wariness and palpable longing. Maybe there’s an inner pull, a kind of magnetic attraction. Whatever the reason, the lonely, they know each other.

This is how the lives of three solitary people — Alex (Alan Rickman), Linda (Sigourney Weaver) and Maggie (Carrie-Anne Moss) — end up intersecting in icy, small-town Canada. Dynamic Vivienne (Emily Hampshire), an expert on lost-cause types, takes a liking to the tight-lipped Alex, newly released from prison. She interrupts his coffee at a diner, disarms him with her wit (her take on self-help books is hysterical) and begs a ride home to visit her mother Linda (Sigourney Weaver). But their friendship is not long for the world; there’s a car accident, and Vivienne’s death sends Alex in search of Linda. Alex, who’s cold but not heartless, feels guilty and wants to do the right thing … until he realizes Linda is a high-functioning autistic. Suddenly, being decent doesn’t seem quite so shiny.

Herein lies the emotional weight of “Snow Cake” lies, in the uncomfortable interactions between Alex and Linda, who aren’t all that different from one another. Linda is intelligent and functional but unable to process emotions like grief or anger; Alex, for reasons we discover later, tends to repress his feelings for fear if he lets one out they’ll all overwhelm him. Both Linda and Alex exist in their own isolated worlds, and it’s become comfortable not to need anyone else. So to call their acquaintanceship “odd” is a whopping understatement. There is no emotional bond; Linda informs this interloper she prefers “useful” people. Alex sees this as an opportunity: He can plan Vivienne’s funeral, take care of a few chores and move along. No messy emotions to sift through. No forced attempts to “connect” and “bond.” and share “quality time.” This becomes a workable and refreshingly unsappy relationship.  

It’s fair to say the same of “Snow Cake” itself, for this is a film that lacks sap. Angela Pell’s script deftly avoids melodrama at points where we expect it most; instead, Pell favors humor and fumbling awkwardness and flashes of real poignancy (Linda’s funeral dance is one of the best scenes). Linda and Alex are two of a kind, living in a kind of emotional quarantine, and Linda’s sexually confident neighbor Maggie seems like an outsider to them. For Maggie, though, sex is a way to avoid real intimacy, to experience physical closeness without emotions. She is the most mysterious character, and the one who seems the most unaffected by Alex’s arrival.

Notice how that word “seems” keeps popping up? There’s good reason for that — “Snow Cake” is the kind of minimalist indie character drama where not much at all happens and what does happen is very, very subtle. The film is a bit like “Come Early Morning” in that way, with the characters undergoing changes so gradual they threaten to slip past unnoticed. Rickman, in particular, is genius at playing men who are thoroughly damaged but not unredeemable. With his guarded eyes, he doesn’t give us much to explain why Alex is the way he is. But there are small moments — feeding Vivienne’s dog for Linda, opening up to Maggie — where Rickman shows us the man behind the wall. Moss and Weaver’s performances offer up no such explanation. We know nothing about Maggie and Moss is unwilling to let down her guard. But watch the change in her expressions; hard as she is, she’s learned to trust someone other than herself. As Linda, Weaver has the toughest part; she must be a woman living in her own head, but one we develop affection for. It’s a thankless part, but Weaver gives it a certain kind of grace. 

Come to think of it, that’s exactly what “Snow Cake” is all about: grace. These three lonely people find it in each other, and it gives them strength to keep going. That’s not much, maybe, but it feels like everything.

Grade: B