The good news about “First Snow” is that it is a much better film about an ordinary person caught up in the implacable gears of fate than the superficially similar “Premonition.” The bad news is that this still doesn’t make it quite good enough to safely recommend. It has a lot of style and some strong and effective performances but the screenplay winds up getting bogged down in too many subplots and a finale that just doesn’t quite live up to the promises of the opening scenes.Guy Pearce stars as Jimmy, a hot-shot salesman in New Mexico with a let-it-all-hang-out attitude towards life and a line of slick patter for every situation. While stranded in the middle of nowhere when his car breaks down on a business trip, Jimmy decides to pass the time by getting his palm read by local fortune teller Vacaro (J.K. Simmons). At first, Vacaro offers up the usual innocuous material–an underdog basketball team will score an upset victory and Jimmy will soon prosper greatly from a business dealing with a man from Dallas–but when he seems to see something far more upsetting, he tells Jimmy to leave immediately and even refunds his money. Jimmy just assumes that Vacaro is another born hustler like himself–although he can’t quite make any sense of the refund–until the predictions about the game and the business deal wind up coming true. Now on edge, he returns to Vacaro to find out the truth behind that final prediction and is informed that while he is fine for now, the onset of the first snow will bring “no more roads, no more tomorrows.”
This is a neat set-up for a film and “First Snow” makes the most of it for a while–director Mark Fergus conjures up a nice sense of atmosphere and some of the early scenes are marvels of slow-burning tension. At this point, the screenplay (co-written by Fergus & Hawk Ostby) begins to slowly unravel as Jimmy becomes increasing unhinged as time passes and the temperature begins to drop. Eventually, three possible reasons for his future demise begin to emerge–a heart condition, a disgruntled employee (Rick Gonzalez) that Jimmy fired in an especially heartless manner and the return of a former friend (Shea Whigham) who went to jail over a shady deal that he was also involved with–and as he ping-pongs back and forth between them, the story begins to lose focus. At the same time, his slowly disintegrating relationship with longtime girlfriend Deidre (Piper Perabo) is frustratingly put on the back burner for far too long and the payoff to this plot line is so underwhelming that you wonder why it was even there in the first place. (This isn’t to say that I completely objected to it appearing, mostly because it gives us a choice to once again bask in the glowing cinematic presence of the always-fetching Piper Perabo.)What does work in “First Snow”–enough to at least make worth checking out on DVD or cable at some point down the line–are the performances. As Jimmy, Guy Pearce turns in his most striking work since “Memento” and even when the story begins to spiral out of control, he is always on point with his smart and focused efforts. In the smaller role of Vacaro, J.K. Simmons is absolutely mesmerizing even though his approaches it in the most low-key manner possible. I even liked the supporting performances from Perabo (although I wish she had been given more to do) and William Fichtner as a cheerfully sleazy colleague of Jimmy’s who isn’t sure what to make of his partner’s strange new behavior. They all do good work and although their efforts go a long way towards making “First Snow” worth watching, I just wish that the screenplay had gone to those same lengths as well.