3 stars (out of four)
"First Snow" is a smart, tense modern film noir about a cocky hustler/salesman (played by Guy Pearce) who suddenly comes face to face with his own failings and the death that may be just around the corner in the first snows of winter. The movie, made by first-time writer-director Mark Fergus, has a marvelously crisp and uneasy mood. Set in and around Albuquerque, it supplies a backdrop that blends cheesy, cheerless modernities--bars, roads and suburban neighborhoods--with the monumental quality of the southwestern deserts and mountains. Fate may or may not be chasing Jimmy--we're never quite sure--but we can see it in those overwhelming vistas, the void of wintry cold coming down.
The opening has a pure "Twilight Zone" quality, the otherworldly in the everyday. Jimmy is killing time in a small town while his car is being repaired and, for a laugh, he goes to a fortune teller, Vacaro (J.K. Simmons), in a nearby trailer. Jimmy expects a con, but Vacaro proves weirdly convincing. Predictions of a financial windfall and a win (despite a crucial injury) by Jimmy's basketball team, the Wolves, pale against the moment when Vacaro blanches and pulls away, refusing to tell Jimmy the horror he's foreseen. Jimmy becomes anxious--even more so when the Wolves win and he also gets the windfall. Checking back with Vacaro, he forces a revelation out of the old man: There's a void where Jimmy's life should have been, even though he's safe, Vacaro assures him, until the first snow.
Mostly written by host Rod Serling, "The Twilight Zone" was a supremely moralistic show. So is this movie. Jimmy, we discover, is a morally sleazy guy who callously uses the people around him: his nearly fed-up girlfriend Deirdre (Piper Perabo), his sympathetic friend and co-worker Ed (William Fichtner), his underling Andy (Rick Gonzales) and worst of all, his ex-best friend Vincent (Shea Whigham), who went to jail because of Jimmy. As Jimmy digs through his life, he becomes more desperate, and the film tightens the screws.
It's not a complete success; the ending doesn't deliver quite the icy payoff the movie needs. But for a lower-budget, quickly shot debut feature, it's impressive. Fergus has written (or co-written, with his partner Hawk Ostby) some of the more interesting and darkly inventive scripts of the past several years: for Richard Linklater's animated film of Philip K. Dick's "A Scanner Darkly" and Alfonso Cuaron's of P.D. James' "Children of Men." Here he uses neo-noir-style plot twists to craft an acid character study of a modern heel and a nightmare thriller about what John O'Hara would have called Jimmy's "Appointment in Samarra."
Since his roles as a straight-arrow cop in "L.A. Confidential" and the driven amnesiac in "Memento," Pearce has become a near-archetypal neo-noir figure himself. His thin handsome ambivalent features are perfect for this kind of secretly evil universe, and he gets both Jimmy's mean charm and slick opportunism. Fichtner brings warmth to the role of Jimmy's buddy; Jackie Burroughs has wonderful moments as Maggie, the tough, birdlike old mother of Vincent. And Simmons puts so much conviction and believable eccentricity in Vacaro that he makes us briefly believe in an inexorable fate.
Movies like "First Snow" rise or fall on characters and atmosphere, and Fergus gets them both. But though the story's resolution does have irony and even a certain power, it lacks the charge, the Serlingesque "gotcha," that it needs. When the first snows fall, they don't chill us as they should. Too bad, because, up to then, Fergus seemed to have fate in his pocket.
Directed by Mark Fergus; screenplay by Fergus, Hawk Ostby; photographed by Eric Alan Edwards; edited by Jay Cassidy; music by Cliff Martinez; production design by Devorah Herbert; produced by Bryan Furst, Sean Furst, Tom Lassally, Robyn Meisinger and Bob Yari. A Yari Film Group release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:41. MPAA rating: R (for language, some violence and sexuality).
Jimmy Starks - Guy Pearce
Deirdre - Piper Perabo
Ed - William Fichtner
Vacaro - J.K. Simmons
Vincent - Shea Whigham
Maggie - Jackie Burroughs
Andy - Rick GonzalesCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times