*A guest review today, from Nick Schager, of Slant Magazine
On the evidence of First Snow, it's apparent that Mark Fergus is a devoted student of classic crime cinema. For his directorial debut, the filmmaker (re-teaming with his Children of Men screenwriting partner Hawk Ostby) delivers a streamlined, straightforward slice of "Sunshine Noir," a sub-genre in which noir's pessimistic thematic preoccupations are transplanted from the shadowy night to the blisteringly bright daytime. As in Fergus' film, this shift also often involves a milieu relocation from the seedy, malevolent city to the imposingly empty rural wasteland, with the omnipresent air of gloom and calamity found not beneath towering skyscrapers and in darkened alleys but, rather, just behind scraggly tumbleweed bushes, across the horizon-seeking interstate, and around the corner from the dilapidated gas stations that sit, like ominous oases, in the middle of the vast nowhere.
Such a fill-up station is the starting point for the turbulent journey of Jimmy (Guy Pearce), a cocky, fast-talking flooring salesman who dreams of making it big selling classic Wurlitzer jukeboxes, and who becomes stranded at an out-of-the-way New Mexico rest stop after his car hits a (literal and figurative) bump in the road. While waiting for repairs, Jimmy entertains himself by having his fortune read by a laid-back psychic named Vacaro (J.K. Simmons), though his mockery of the man's supposed supernatural gifts come to a halt when – after offering up some cryptic comments about impending events – the seer is overwhelmed by violent seizures and, consequently, halts the reading and returns Jimmy's money. Simultaneously amused and mildly annoyed, the salesman nonetheless thinks little of the encounter until the prophesies begin coming true, prompting a return visit to Vacaro during which he's told that death shall arrive with the season's first snowfall.
"A man makes his destiny, right? Nothing makes the gods laugh harder," muses Jimmy at the outset, thereby explicating the film's position on the fate-vs.-free will debate that comes to consume his every waking thought. Fergus is interested not only in exploring whether man chooses his future or is simply swept forward by unseen forces, but also in how one might live life if informed about when it will end. The director's own faith in his audience's ability to detect such thematic questions, however, is depressingly meager, his script regularly resorting to exposition in order to underline the narrative's larger concerns. Increasingly convinced that he's doomed, Jimmy – not unlike Jim Carrey's numeral-spotting nut job in The Number 23 – starts seeing clues to his demise everywhere he looks: a lazy heart valve, a former co-worker who rightly blames Jimmy for his unemployment, and finally, a mysterious man from the past named Vincent (Shea Whigham) who's arrived back in town, possibly to settle an old score.
This last threat reveals itself to be Jimmy's most pressing one once Vincent goes all Max Cady on his childhood pal by reenacting Cape Fear's prank phone call scenes, his messages' menacing innuendo too vague to persuade the law to act but more than enough to unsettle Jimmy. It's a scenario only resolvable via a final showdown between the harried protagonist and his ghost-from-misdeeds-past, an outcome that might have been satisfying if the film didn't first blatantly dilly-dally with obvious red herrings and empty exchanges between Jimmy and both girlfriend Deirdre (Piper Perabo) and co-worker Ed (William Fichtner), neither of whom fulfill any meaningful role in Jimmy's attempt to grapple with issues of honesty, acceptance and atonement. Next to nothing noteworthy happens during large chunks of First Snow, and though Fergus' direction is sharp and economical, it's also far too rote to bring any heat or electricity to the lightly suspenseful, simplistically philosophical proceedings.
As such, the burden of keeping this schematically plotted tale's pulse lively falls on Pearce, who instills Jimmy with a brand of cheery, motormouthed deceitfulness and egotism that even a mother would loathe. With long hair and matching sideburns, and alternately decked out in suits and workshirt-and-trucker-hat attire, his Jimmy is the embodiment of self-interested sleaziness, and brings some much-needed nastiness to the often tame action at hand. Alas, even with an ideal noir cretin as his story's focal point, Fergus proves unwilling (or incapable) of wholeheartedly embracing the genre's bleak fatalism. That no happy ending arrives is a minor testament to First Snow's belief in destiny's overriding, irresistible supremacy. Yet any cynicism about man's ability to shape his own future is ultimately tempered by a third-act devolution into creaky, white-snow-as-purifying-agent symbolism, as well as disingenuously uplifting redemption pap that the film winds up delivering by the shovel-load.