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First Snow

An Existential Drama That Goes Nowhere

The tagline for First Snow, helmed by screenwriter-turned-director Mark Fergus asks, “What if someone looked into your future and didn't see tomorrow?” Part character study, part mystery/thriller, part crime-drama, First Snow misses out on the promising potential inherent in its premise of an egotistical character facing his mortality and the effects that knowledge has on his psyche.

As promising as First Snow seems to be at first, Fergus and his co-screenwriter, Hawk Ostby, lose their way, and opt for an unsatisfying, ultimately unrewarding ending. Ending aside, the movie has enough going for it (e.g., performances, direction, and cinematography) to make it worthwhile viewing.

A hustler by trade, Jimmy (Guy Pearce), hustles flooring for commercial properties in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but dreams of selling refurbished Wurlitzers for a handsome profit. Trouble is, he doesn't have the capital to get into the Wurlitzer business. His best friend, Ed (William Fichtner), and his boss, Roy Harrison (Luce Rains), don't think much of the idea. Even Jimmy's live-in girlfriend, Deirdre (Piper Perabo), seems to be losing patience with his dreaming and scheming. But for Jimmy, the road ahead is boundless with possibilities. All he needs is one bit of good luck, one break, and everything will fall into place.

On a business trip, Jimmy's car breaks down in an isolated hamlet. While he waits for his car to be repaired, he decides to give an itinerant fortuneteller, Vacaro (J.K. Simmons), a chance to read his future. Vacaro makes two predictions, one involving a basketball game, another involving a business venture, but breaks down before he gives Jimmy a far more dire prediction about his future.

Once Vacaro's first and second predictions come true, Jimmy begins to believe that Vacaro isn't a salesman or a performer, but the real deal. A return visit to Vacaro only reveals that Jimmy has only through the first snow. Just as Jimmy's already unstable life begins to unravel, an old friend, Vincent (Shea Whigham), recently out of prison, calls him, eager for a reunion.

First Snow plays up the fate versus free will theme we’ve seen before. Start with "Oedipus Rex" and work your way through two thousand years worth of plays, novels, films, and television. Writer/director Mark Fergus and his co-screenwriter, Hawk Ostby, don’t have anything profound to say about this particular question, except to use it to give the movie forward momentum and Jimmy something to stew about.

Fergus and Ostby mix and match different genres (e.g., mystery/thriller, crime drama, psychological character study), sometimes in startlingly original ways, no less so than the literal reemergence of Jimmy’s past to haunt him, but just as often falling back on familiar genre tropes when all else fails.

With the ending in sight, First Snow stumbles and never manages to recover. Moviegoers are expected to believe Jimmy's personal transformation into a man eager to make amends. Twelve-step program in mind, Jimmy decides to make peace with everyone and anyone he might have injured through his careless, negligent, reckless, and selfish behavior. To get us to believe Jimmy’s transformation, Fergus and Ostby needed to lay down some cues for Jimmy’s eventual transformation.

Fergus and Ostby compound their error by copping out just when they shouldn't. To fall back on noirish voice over narration, followed by a quick cut, a radio voice, and the end of the film, is to lose your nerve just when you should up the ante and surprise us with the unexpected and the unpredictable.

For a first-time director, Fergus shows a steady hand behind the camera. Where other first-time directors will opt for self-conscious, look-at-me flash, Fergus goes the opposite route, preferring a spare, austere style. That’s all to the good, as is the early scenes of Jimmy slowly, if inexorably, losing his tenuous grip on his dreams, his relationships, and his life as the fortune teller’s predictions become true.

Not surprisingly, First Snow gives Guy Pearce a chance to take center stage and show his range, as he did so memorably in Christopher Nolan’s Memento seven years ago. But that was then and, sadly, Fergus isn’t Nolan, at least not when it comes to writing effective, compelling stories with satisfying dramatic payoffs.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars