Don’t be fooled by Thomas Dekker’s boyish good looks—the long, effeminate eyelashes and angular, delicate lines of his face can contort into expressions of terror, shock, confusion and profound sorrow. Mr. Dekker’s unforced performance as a grieving and guilt-ridden young father is the driving force behind the gritty, unrelenting drama that is “Angels Crest.”
Directed by Gaby Dellal and adapted from the eponymous novel by Leslie Schwartz, “Angels Crest” is named for a small town nestled in the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains. The wintery, rural landscape and dark storyline are akin to Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” (2010), but “Angels Crest’s” theme of childhood death within a close-knit community shares more similarities to Atom Egoyan’s widely praised 1997 film, “The Sweet Hereafter.” Also based on a novel (by Russell Banks), “The Sweet Hereafter” explores the conflicting sentiments of the townsfolk after nearly all of its children are killed in a tragic bus accident. “Angels Crest” also deals with the loss of a child, but examines grief and guilt on a more intimate level, directing its focus on the dynamics of young parenthood.
The aforementioned Mr. Dekker (“Foreverland,” “Kaboom”) plays Ethan, whose seemingly innocent but thoughtless actions play a role in the tragic death of his son, Nate. On the morning of the first snow of the season, Ethan takes Nate for an early morning drive with plans for some serious snow-man building and ends up parked at the edge of the wilderness. Ethan is lured from his truck by the sight of a herd of deer, and leaves his son sleeping in his car-seat with the heat turned up and doors locked. Ethan returns after a short time to find that Nate is no longer in the truck, and a panic-induced sequence of events soon unfolds with a sense of urgency so strong, it feels as though it is happening in real time. The town’s residents, including Angie (Academy Award winner Mira Sorvino), the owner of the diner, and Ethan’s best friend, Rusty (Joseph Morgan, from television’s “The Vampire Diaries”) form the search team that struggles desperately to find Nate alive.
When Cindy, Nate’s estranged, alcoholic mother (played by Lynn Collins, who starred alongside Al Pacino in 2004’s“The Merchant of Venice”), arrives at the scene, her shear sense of panic is portrayed with an brutal realism that can be painful to witness, even from our safe distance in the movie theater. Cindy desperately calls Nate’s name, and demands to know why the search party isn’t doing the same; in one chilling moment, Cindy scrawls Nate’s name in red lipstick on a car window, as if the scarlet red letters would serve as a beacon for his safe return. When Ethan discovers Nate’s body a mere quarter mile from his truck, Ms. Dellal’s sensitive directional eye does not linger on the child’s lifeless form, and instead chooses to express the unspeakable horror through Ethan. As Ethan carries his son’s lifeless form and howls into the unresponsive rocky bluffs, one cannot help but recall the wails of sorrow from Shakespeare’s King Lear, as he cradles his dead daughter, Cordelia, and scorns stoic bystanders for their impassiveness—“O, you are men of stone.”
Nate’s death causes a fissure among the residents of Angels Crest between those who blame Ethan and those who pity him. This conflict causes tension within the town’s most intimate relationships, especially between gay couple Jane (played by Golden Globe-nominee Elizabeth McGovern of PBS’s “Downton Abbey”) and Roxie (Kate Walsh, of television’s “Private Practice). The level-head but compassionate Jane sympathizes with Nate, and remains his loyal friend despite the misgivings of Roxie, who accuses Ethan of being an irresponsible father. Charges are eventually pressed against Ethan for criminal negligence, and Jeremy Piven (television’s “Entourage”) plays Jake, the prosecuting lawyer who we learn has also suffered the loss of his child. Thankfully, “Angels Crest” does not succumb to the banalities of a courtroom drama, and remains an intense character study for the effects of extreme grief and guilt without falling into clichés of the genre.
Some dramas that deal with the death of a loved one have characters that conform to the strict rigidity of the Kubler-Ross model for the Five Stages of Grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Ms. Dellal spurns such conventions. Ethan and Cindy articulate their mourning with a surprising fluidity that lends a realistic and visceral blow to our judgment. Just as we begin to pity Ethan for his loss, we rebuke him for playing violent video games with his buddies the night after the funeral. Likewise, we wonder whether Cindy’s rampant alcoholism is her way of mourning, or if she is using Nate’s death as an excuse to drink herself into a stupor. And, when Ethan supplicates his naked body to the frozen, snowy ground so that he might experience the last dying moments of his son, one begins to wonder why blame and guilt is not a sixth stage of grief. Reflection and loneliness are sometimes added to versions the Kubler-Ross model, and are conveyed in the quietly devastating final scenes of “Angels Crest.”
Any parent will no doubt be haunted by “Angels Crest,” both by the fearlessly vulnerable performance of Mr. Dekker and the troubling questions posed about parental awareness/consciousness. In fear of spoiling some small but crucial plot points, I will only say that if Ethan bears any responsibility for Nate’s death, it is because he underestimates his son’s capabilities. The level of awareness that parents must have concerning the actions and abilities of their children must be so vast and yet so acute that the mere thought of the enormity of that scope of cognizance can take one’s breath away. “Angels Crest” is an unflinching study of sorrow; but above all, it is a sober tribute to the precarious art of parenting.