Guy Pearce as Jimmy Starks
Piper Perabo as Deirdre
William Fichtner as Ed
J.K. Simmons as Vacaro
Shea Whigham as Vincent
Rick Gonzalez as Andy Lopez
Jackie Burroughs as Maggie
Adam Scott as Tom Morelane
Luce Rains as Roy Harrison
Directed by Mark Fergus
"First Snow" is a fresh and surprisingly effective character-driven thriller featuring Guy Pearce in one of his strongest roles since "Memento."
Jimmy Starks (Guy Pearce) is a shady traveling salesman who's made a career by screwing over everyone around him. When his car breaks down, he decides to kill time by visiting a roadside fortune-teller (J.K. Simmons), who tells him that things will soon be going his way, at least up until the first snow… because he can't see anything beyond that. Of course, Jimmy thinks he's a crank and ignores the warnings until some of the things he's told start coming true. When Jimmy's former friend Vincent gets out of prison, having been put there due to Jimmy's shady dealings, Jimmy realizes that he may only have a short time to make amends for his past wrong-doings before his predicted demise.
"First Snow" is one of those directorial debuts that might annoy as many first-time viewers as it does intrigue others. It's such a different movie from anything else out there and going in with no expectations (as I did) allows for a far more satisfying experience due to the unique approach taken by Mark Fergus and co-writer Hawk Ostby in taking what might have been a simple premise and turning it into something memorable.
It takes some time for "First Snow" to get going and even when it does, it's not exactly clear what's going on, as some of the relationship are deliberately kept vague, slowly unveiling details as the movie unfolds. The first time we meet Jimmy Starks, he's the type of arrogant, fast-talking salesman we know all too well, making it hard not to outright loathe him from the beginning. What's interesting is watching how things develop and what he goes through, and things start coming together and making more sense as we follow Jimmy around and watch him interact with the various people in his life. The clear turning point comes when Jimmy learns that a former friend named Vincent, who he screwed over and got thrown into jail, has been released. At this point, things get more exciting as Jimmy tries to stay one step ahead of the person he's sure will be responsible for his demise. By the end of the movie, you may be surprised how much you actually like Jimmy more than you did at the beginning, and a lot of this has to do with his portrayal by Guy Pearce, who creates another rich, multi-layered character with one of his strongest performances since "Memento."
While "First Snow" might come off a bit like a thriller in premise, it's really more of a character drama in disguise, focusing on the journey of this man trying to make amends and change his ways while there's still time. It might not seem like that unique or original a premise, but there's something to the approach taken by Fergus that keeps you on board. Most of this comes from the premise and the sharp dialogue, and in that sense, it might remind some of last year's "Harsh Times", the directorial debut from Dave ("Training Day") Ayers, and Scott ("Out of Time") Frank's upcoming debut "The Lookout" (out next week). All three movies are driven by strong writing and acting, defying any sort of genre stranglehold by focusing more on the characters, something one immediately assumes has to do with having screenwriters in control.
It doesn't hurt that Fergus and Ostby have such a strong cast, not just Pearce, but also J.K. Simmons playing an uncharacteristically subdued role as the fortune-teller, William Fichtner as Jimmy's co-worker, and the up 'n' coming Rick Gonzalez as Jimmy's protégé whose own undoing comes from trying to be more like Jimmy. (Even Piper Perabo isn't bad, and she's probably been slammed more by this critic than Heather Graham... but only in words.)
What makes "First Snow" so riveting is the way Fergus creates such an atmospheric mood with the stark visuals and the gorgeous ambient score from Cliff Martinez that's so transparent that it effectively blends into the natural sounds of the New Mexico setting. The desert landscape plays such a large role in the tone of the piece that when snow actually starts falling as predicated by the plot, it's an amazing vision to behold, since it's something not often seen by anyone who doesn't live there.
Despite its subdued tone, "First Snow" culminates in a nail-biting climax where Jimmy finally confronts Vincent, a great moment that keeps you on the edge of your seat as Pearce faces an equally strong performance by Shea Whigham. The way the movie ends is likely to divide anyone who's gotten that far, because either they'll see it as something cool and unexpected or be annoyed by how it comes out of left field before the movie suddenly ends. Personally, I'll have to see it again before deciding, but it just adds to the film's originality.
The Bottom Line:
Anyway you slice it, this is a very special debut feature from Mark Fergus and writing partner Hawk Ostby, very much in the vein of something like Darren Aronofksy's "Pi" or Christopher Nolan's "Following" in being a low-key film that shows a lot of promise for future films being even better.