First Snow | Inhuman Swill | William Shunn


First Snow

This film review was originally published online at Science Fiction Weekly, March 23, 2007.

Jimmy Starks (Guy Pearce) is a flooring salesman who works the lonely roads of New Mexico’s high desert. A minor car accident one autumn day leaves him stranded at a speck on the map that comprises little more than a service station, a bar, and roadside flea market. With nothing better to do while his car gets repaired, Jimmy visits the trailer of a local fortune teller named Vacaro (J.K. Simmons). The grizzled, no-nonsense old ranchhand takes Jimmy’s hand and mildly predicts that good fortune in a new business venture will soon be arriving from Dallas.

That’s amusing enough to Jimmy, but Vacaro continues into a recitation of his insecurities and ambitions that strikes a discomfiting nerve. In an attempt to laugh off the experience, Jimmy presses the older man to look more deeply into his future. Vacaro’s brow furrows in concentration—and he begins to tremble as if in the grip of a seizure. Abruptly, Vacaro drops Jimmy’s hand, returns his money, and ushers him out of the trailer.

Sales is more than just a job for Jimmy; spin comes so readily to his lips that even to Deirdre (Piper Perabo), the sweet girlfriend who wants to settle down with him, he can hardly utter a straightforward word. Unsettled by the experience at the fortune teller’s trailer, he convinces himself that it was really another form of sales pitch, and meaningless. But then Jimmy’s boss returns from a trip to Dallas with news that he plans to finance one of Jimmy’s ambitious sales schemes.

Frightened, Jimmy rushes back to Vacaro’s trailer to find out what else the older man saw in his future. Only when bullied does Vacaro—sadly but perhaps with some spite—reveal that all roads will end for Jimmy soon after the season’s first snow. Vacaro cannot tell him how it will happen, only that it will, no matter what road he takes.

Jimmy has stepped on a lot of people to get to where he is, and that’s when he realizes one of them may be stalking him and Deirdre. For every step he takes toward escape, fate only seems to hem him in more tightly. And the weatherman keeps predicting an early snow this year. . . .

Into every life a little snow must fall

J.K. Simmons makes a very strong impression here with his mournful, straight-talking fortune teller. He turns what could have been a silly role in something moving. Who knew J. Jonah Jameson had such depth?

First Snow is a calm, deliberate thriller that very effectively creates a mounting sense of dread. The screenplay, admirably economical in the way it conveys background information about Jimmy’s life, is also judicious in doling out its scares, surprises, and revelations. The story ambles along at such an unhurried pace that it’s a shock at times to realize how tightly the tension has coiled. Occasionally the action sags, or the director heavy-handedly underscores a point with voiceover flashbacks, but just as often the film rises to visual brilliance, as when an isolated Pearce staggers across a pure white screen that turns out to be a snow-covered parking lot viewed from above. This may be standard supernatural fare, but there’s pleasure in watching even familiar material handled with this level of craft and care.

Guy Pearce turns in a fine performance as a man so caught up in the slick game of evasion that he can’t believe anyone else is being entirely straight with him. He makes Jimmy just likeable enough to keep the audience’s sympathy, while still letting him be enough of a jerk to keep the story rolling. J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man) underplays his role of the reluctant fortune teller to good effect, though some of the other supporting characters suffer from broad writing. Piper Perabo (The Prestige) in particular has very little to do, though Pearce’s character is self-centered enough that it makes sense for his girlfriend to remain somewhat out of focus. The film is very much filtered through Jimmy’s perceptions—the character appears in every scene, or very nearly so—and ultimately it’s by Pearce’s performance that First Snow succeeds or fails.

In a way, though, he’s as much a liability as an asset. Because of its mood, subject matter, and lead actor, First Snow can’t keep from inviting comparison with another twisty psychological thriller, Memento, and by that yardstick it suffers. While well-made and engaging, for much of its length First Snow can’t escape the long shadow that earlier movie casts, with a puzzled protagonist struggling to understand and escape the larger meshings of the fate ensnaring him. Without Memento’s bold originality, perhaps this film might better have been served to cast a different actor in the role of Jimmy Starks.

Fortunately, First Snow comes into its own in its final stretch, as Jimmy chooses to stop struggling against his apparent destiny and instead meet it on his terms—and it’s almost as if, at this point, the filmmakers made that same choice. While not earth-shattering, First Snow’s ending pulls no thematic punches, suggesting in an emotionally resonant and mostly satisfying way that sometimes free will and fate are one and the same.  

First Snow
Starring Guy Pearce, J.K. Simmons, Piper Perabo, William Fichtner, Rick Gonzalez and Shea Whigham
Written by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby
Directed by Mark Fergus
Yari Film Group Releasing and El Camino Pictures
Rated R
Open now in New York and Los Angeles, selected cities throughout April

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