A moody psychological thriller about a salesman’s paranoid attempts to circumvent his predicted demise, “First Snow” engages but underwhelms. Writing duo Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (“Children of Men,” with tyro Fergus at the directorial helm) have crafted a nuanced character study whose well-chosen elements — the flat, existential New Mexico landscapes, inventively detailed interiors, strong supporting players and a credible central perf by Guy Pearce — never completely gel. But the good-looking pic, opening a week after “Premonition,” may score as a worthy masculine-noir alternative to overwrought femme melodrama.
Pitchman par excellence, Jimmy (Pearce) has an eye for the main chance and an angle for every occasion. Peddling vintage Wurlitzer jukeboxes by day, carousing with co-worker pal Ed (William Fichter) by night and snuggling with live-in g.f. Dierdre (Piper Perabo) in between, Jimmy cynically dismisses mankind as potential marks or fellow con men.
A car repair strands Jimmy in the boondocks where, in a battered trailer, an old man (a hauntingly wise turn by J.K. Simmons) foresees his impending death sometime after the first snow — a forecast Jimmy initially dismisses, but one that gradually takes on an ominous credibility. Echoes of the time-jiggered Pearce starrer “Memento” reverberate here, as the terrifying future begins to color the present and unleash the past.
Anxiety and self-doubt unravel Jimmy’s narcissistic certitude, as a personality built on denial slowly crumbles. An anonymous threat evokes vengeful specters of people Jimmy has previously screwed over on his rise to the middle, chief among them a hotheaded protege (Rick Gonzales) and childhood friend and ex-partner Vincent (Shea Whigham), whom Jimmy cravenly sold out to the cops.
Amid abstract discussions of fate and free will, Jimmy sinks into feral paranoia, followed by calm acceptance and last-minute stabs at restitution.
Jimmy’s attempts to aggressively forestall his fate ironically rouse the sleeping dragons he sought to appease. Vincent, recently released from prison and angered by Jimmy’s continued denial of responsibility, grows increasingly unstable, building to one of the pic’s edgiest moments. Yet it’s impossible to gauge the level of irony implicit in Jimmy’s quick-fix salvation,as helmer Fergus fudges the distance between Jimmy’s p.o.v. and the film’s.
Pearce physically makes the part his own, his long-haired, lean-and-hungry look a welcome variation on the Alpha-salesman stereotype. Yet, though he appears in every scene, he cannot fully pull off the pic’s moral arc: Pearce’s dour thesping lacks sufficient variety, his fast-talking con man only a nervous shift away from his cornered-wreck persona. In the absence of strong direction, the camera, like a teacher waiting for a recalcitrant student to produce the right answer, passively follows Pearce’s erratic peregrinations until he arrives at his destiny.
Action scenes, on the other hand, play out with a nice, nervous energy. Eric Edward’s widescreen lensing turns the landscape into a personage in itself, as changing temperatures presage doom.
Pic is subtly strewn with unobtrusive signs and symbols (Native American artifacts or the illustrated writings on the wall in Vincent’s room) that are never explained, suggesting unplumbed depths and back stories. Devorah Herbert’s expressively detailed production design, contrasting Jimmy’s impersonally spacious abode with Vincent’s cramped, cluttered lair, intricately mirrors the characters’ mind-states.