First Snow (Germany/United States, 2006)
Like most intelligent movies that dare to demand that the movie viewer think by pondering the question of predestination versus self-determination, First Snow is a downbeat affair. The interest here isn't whether the main character will circumvent fate (not something likely to happen since such an occurrence would violate one of the movie's themes) but how he will greet the inevitable. Will he embrace it or, like Dylan Thomas, rage against the dying of the light? Is knowing the timing of one's end a gift or a curse? Does it allow us to make peace with our existence and leave it on our own terms or does it turn the chambers of life into the waiting room of death?
Jimmy (Guy Pearce) is a slick salesman whose glibness and charisma elevate him a little above the common con man. He's the kind of guy who could fulfill the cliché and sell an air conditioner to an Eskimo. He lives with a beautiful realtor girlfriend, Dierdre (Piper Perabo), but their interaction seems more formal than affectionate. His closest pal is a co-worker named Ed (William Fichtner), but there's no room in their relationship for any intimate bonding. Jimmy harbors a secret - Vincent (Shea Whigham), his childhood best friend, went to jail three years ago because Jimmy gave him up to the authorities to save himself from a prison term. There's guilt there, even if it has been repressed. Now that Vincent is out on parole, this event, which Jimmy had pushed into one of the dusty, vacant storage rooms of his memory, is of immediate importance - especially when a fortune teller (J.K. Simmons) predicts Jimmy's near-term death soon after the first snow falls.
The film's tone is suitably disharmonious as the story wavers expertly between thriller and drama. There are some missteps - character development is spotty and the resolution of the Vincent/Jimmy situation feels a little too facile - but on the whole First Snow is a satisfying experience. In some ways, it's reminiscent of last month's Premonition, but without the Hollywood-mandated melodrama and with a more credible way of handling things. There's no time traveling here - just one man trying to figure out whether he's hastening his end by trying to avoid it. (The movie provides one tantalizing way in which Jimmy might be able to avoid his fate. He jokes about it, but doesn't take it, possibly because he's not 100% convinced in the inevitability of his approaching death.)
When it comes to actors willing to take on maverick roles, it's hard to find a better choice than Guy Pearce, the cross-dresser in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the vengeful brother in The Proposition, and the memory challenged protagonist in Memento (arguably his signature portrayal). Armed with a nearly flawless American accent, Pearce shows how a self-assured man's cockiness can evaporate as he becomes obsessed about his future (or lack thereof). He is, by turns, arrogant, cool, frightened, desperate, depressed, and resolved. That's a lot of territory for an actor to cover in a performance, but range is not one of the actor's weaknesses. J.K. Simmons, perhaps best known as J. Jonah Jameson from the Spider-Man movies, is surprisingly sympathetic as the fortune teller who reads more than he bargained for while holding Jimmy's hand. Piper Perabo is largely wasted - not only is her character half-developed but she's hardly given any dialogue. A similar complaint can be made about William Fichtner.
First Snow keeps audiences guessing - not necessarily about how the film will end but what path things will take to get there. Atmosphere enhances the themes. This might be New Mexico, but it's cold and getting colder. Snow, often used as a metaphor for purification, represents the harbinger of doom. It's fascinating and a little grim to observe a character caught in this kind of trap. We're all going to die but there's some solace in not knowing how or when. Knowledge is not always a good thing and observing how one individual handles this unusual fantasy-tinged situation provides enough compelling drama to make Mark Fergus' debut feature a source of suspense, intrigue, and philosophical musing.
First Snow (Germany/United States, 2006)
Cast: Guy Pearce, Piper Perabo, William Fichtner, J.K. Simmons, Shea Whigham, Rick Gonzalez
Screenplay: Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby
Cinematography: Eric Alan Edwards
Music: Cliff Martinez
U.S. Distributor: Yari