Guy Pearce is Jimmy Starks, a salesman with a line on everything. Smart, fast-talking, and brimming with self-confidence, every moment of his life is a sale. If he's not shilling some product, he's shilling himself. He's one of those guys who probably knows the name of everyone in the room, regardless of what room it is or how long he's been there.
So, it's rare that Jimmy is out of his element, but that's exactly where he ends up in the opening scenes of First Snow. His car swerved into a ditch, his first accident in two years and 50,000 miles, and he gets stranded at an out-of-the-way service station off the New Mexico highway. Bored and looking to kill time, he visits a fortune teller (J.K. Simmons, Spider-Man) who works out of a mobile trailer. Jimmy expects a well-polished con, but what he gets is a psychic with a gift. The man tosses out a couple of random predictions, but stops short of revealing everything. Something is wrong, but he won't tell Jimmy what or why.
When the other predictions come true, Jimmy becomes convinced that he's in serious trouble. Too many other strange coincidences are popping up. He heads back to the trailer and forces the psychic to spill the beans. The original vision showed that Jimmy's life was going to end, and death would come with the first snowfall of the season.
What follows is a somewhat dry but thoroughly involving meditation on fate dressed up in the clothes of a hardboiled crime picture. First Snow is the directing debut of Mark Fergus, who co-wrote the script with Hawk Ostby. The pair also wrote one of last year's best movies, Children of Men. They know a thing or two about the subtle, slow burn. Overwhelmed with the idea that something bad is going to happen to him, Jimmy begins to see danger in everything. His closest co-worker, Ed (William Fichtner), thinks he's nuts, and compares his problem to the game kids play where they try to count the number of a specific kind of car they see on a road trip. You may not have noticed red VWs before, but once it becomes the object you seek, you notice red VWs everywhere.
As Jimmy's sanity starts to fray, however, it exposes that he may have real reason to worry. He's got an old friend with a grudge who just got out on parole. Is this guy responsible for all the hang-up phone calls and the threatening messages in the mail, or are there more mundane explanations? Jimmy can't be sure. He becomes convinced, though, that if he can figure out what's coming, he can stop it. Fergus and Ostby play it smart. They send Jimmy on a search for the psychic, but the movie doesn't become an overcooked supernatural thriller where the fortune teller gives Jimmy another piece of information and then he moves on it. Rather, the only extra bit of information to come Jimmy's way is that fate is sealed, he can't steer the course.
There is no actor better suited for the lead role in First Snow than Guy Pearce. He's got a handle on the perfect kind of slick. He's verbally dexterous and physically assured. He's also gutsy enough to play Jimmy as a pretty unlikable guy. It's actually hard to see why his girlfriend (Piper Parabo) even sticks with him, because most of the time she looks like she wants to knock his block off. Pearce takes Jimmy all the way to the edge, only to yank him back at just the right moment. The blanket of snow that falls is a cleansing do-over, bringing him the calm to deal with what's coming his way. His acceptance opens the story up to further twists, and Jimmy learns some lessons about what's important. You may have no choice about where you're going to end up, but you can do something about what kind of mark you make on the way.
The plot of First Snow is rock solid, and its ending is quietly ironic, worthy of any of the old school film noir masters. If I have any complaint, it's that maybe Fergus plays it too cool. The movie could have used some stylistic pizzazz to match Jimmy's huckster manner. Even at a lean 100 minutes, there's still some lag time in the middle where it seems like we could have gotten over some of the storytelling hurdles a little faster. I'd have also liked to see more of the vertiginous editing that spices up the exposition in the hotel scene, where two separate phone calls are laced together to tell us what is going on outside of Jimmy's solitary confinement. It could have sparked up the earlier parts of the movie the way it does Jimmy's final preparations for his meeting with destiny.
Once it's all over, though, Fergus and Ostby left me with the same haunted feeling I got from Children of Men. Working within the boundaries of genre, they've subtly posed questions about what it means to be an individual, how we reconcile our position within a universe that rolls on with or without us. Several hours after my first viewing, I can't stop thinking about it, and I'm pretty sure it's going to be a movie I'm going to tell all my friends about tomorrow. Had it been a simplistic shoot-'em-up, had the writers let Jimmy work the climax with anything but the skills they labored so hard to give him or tossed us a cheap fake-out, First Snow would have been utterly forgettable. Instead, it cements this team's reputation as ones to watch.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.