David Gordon Green's incredibly gentle decline continues apace. Eight years ago, he made his feature debut (at a ripe old 25) with George Washington, one of the great American films of the decade; now more than a year after its Sundance debut, his fourth feature Snow Angels is making the rounds, and I must conclude that it's "only" rather good. Strangely, for a film that is in some ways the most expansive work of the director's career, it is also I think his meekest, the largest in scope but the tiniest in emotional power. It is very unlike Green's previous movies, and I salute his willingness to break out of his comfort zone even as I do not fall head over heels with the final product.

Three significant firsts are achieved in this work: it is Green's first film to focus primarily on an ensemble cast instead of a small group of characters, his first to take place outside of the American South and his first to take place in the winter. It's hard to decide which of these is most noticeable, or has the greatest effect on the director's aesthetic.

Taking place over a period of about two months during the winter in northern Pennsylvania, Snow Angels watches the lives of a group of interconnected people in a small town, focusing mostly on relationships in flux: Annie (Kate Beckinsale) and Glenn (Sam Rockwell) have been separated for some time, pushing Glenn into a highly neurotic state where he may be a danger to himself and their daughter; Annie is having an affair with Nate (Nicky Katt), whose marriage to Barb (Amy Sedaris), Annie's co-worker, has been on the skids; Louise (Jeanetta Arquette) and Don (Griffin Dunne) are in the final throes of a divorce process that leads both to feel incredibly worthless and alone; their son Arthur (Michael Angarano), a member of the high school band, begins flirting with the new girl in town, Lila (Olivia Thirlby).

The movie is at its best when nothing is happening, other than watching this set of people work through life in small town America. This may well be the finest cast, all in all, that Green has ever worked with: the known quantities such as Rockwell and Katt continue to be amazingly versatile indie actors; Sedaris is just as good in her first non-comedic role as she ever has been; even the notoriously unexciting Beckinsale rises to the occasion with a good director coaching her through a good script. The three young people in the film - Angarano, Thirlby (light-years from her odiously snarky character in Juno) and Connor Paolo, playing Arthur's antisocial friend - add a desperately needed grace note of lightness and humor in an extremely dark, even miserabilist narrative. All of them add up to an entirely believable cross-section of a small community that has lived together since time began.

Here's where the problems begin to sneak in: though the actors (and, to be fair, most of the characters as written) are successful at implying a long-lived community, it's not clear what that community is supposed to be. This, I think, is the problem of the screenwriter-director not having a clear sense of what northern Pennsylvania "is". The Texas-born, North Carolina-schooled Green started his career with two films set very near his alma mater; his masterpiece George Washington was inspired by his undergraduate observations of the world he saw every day, and All the Real Girls was close enough in space and temperament to that world that it flourished using much of the same observational energy. In Undertow, he moved to the somewhat less-familiar swamps of Georgia and produced a noticeably weaker effort, though one still linked indelibly to the sticky humidity of the rural South. But in the dead of winter in a northern town as white as white can be, he simply doesn't have the same personal history that he had with all three of his preceding films, and it shows. Though Snow Angels is impossibly lovely and specific in its imagery, as filmed by Green's constant collaborator Tim Orr, it feels like a series of tourist's snapshots, capturing the surface of the place without understanding its soul. I could not help but think of Fargo, the last film that was made with this much snow looking this gorgeous; though the Coens are frequently criticised for snobbishly insulting their characters, it would be hard to argue that they don't have a strong grasp of what is essentially Minnesotan. Green's film is not essentially Pennsylvanian in the way that George Washington was entirely and unmistakably a film of rural North Carolina. Beyond that, there is some weirdness as to when Snow Angels is even set; from a book that took place in the 1970s, the film is theoretically set in the late-'80s or early-'90s, but other than an odd abundance of flannel, it looks and feels just like the mid-'00s.

I suppose I may be committing the unthinkable sin of criticising a movie for not being a different movie, but Green's primary strength has always been the precise depiction of a particular place, Snow Angels is primarily about a specific community, and it just doesn't feel real - it feels "movie real," like we in the audience are supposed to nod in sage agreement at how skillfully the filmmaker has incorporated signifying elements unique to this setting. He does so, beyond a doubt, but in the way of an anthropologist.

At any rate, the film starts to sag as soon as it takes on the obvious contours of a plot. Something extremely dismal happens more than two-thirds through that sends ripples throughout the community etc., but it feels forced. Rockwell's uncanny, chameleon-like performance (hyperbole alert: if it's not his career-best, it's close) is well-tuned to make the plot-moving aspect of the film seem almost acceptable, but otherwise it's clumsily handled by everyone involved, and it suffocates the small town feeling that has been the film's finest element in simple melodrama that just isn't nearly so interesting.

I worry that I may have said too many negative things about the film. I don't want to suggest it isn't quite good: the acting for over an hour is uniformly suberb, and it is beautifully shot, almost supernaturally so; it's frequent visual quotes from The Conformist are better-earned than is usually the case when that movie is quoted (which happens in seemingly every film that sets a scene in the woods in the snow). Green's trademark slow pacing, which can so easily be dismissed as "boring," is better suited to this story than perhaps any of his previous films. For all my misgivings, this is one of the best American films I've seen all year. It's the most-flawed film by a tremendously important American director, which is still praise no matter how you slice it.