The theme of a man trying to outrun his fate is an old one. Laius tried getting around the prediction about being done in by his son, Oedipus, with less than stellar results. More recently, Puritans in colonial America worried themselves silly over predestination at the hands of an angry deity, while hedging their bets by attending endless rounds of church services and fretting over their chances for a pleasant afterlife. Today there is FIRST SNOW, a film that desperately wants to be metaphysically profound, but is instead so ponderous in its execution, so glib in its philosophical musings, that it taxes rather than inspires its audience.
A good premise gone south is bad enough, but it has dragged Guy Pearce with it. He, an actor of impeccable thespian instincts, is burdened with a flabby, meandering script by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, one that needs a compass and perhaps a Sherpa guide. He plays James, a flooring salesman in New Mexico with dreams of hitting it big with vintage juke boxes. Nails bitten to the quick, a suit that doesn’t quite fit his wiry frame, and a penchant for lying every time he opens his mouth, he hustles the way he breathes. Constantly. Car trouble strands him in the middle of nowhere and to kill the time before hitting the local bar, he has his fortune told by an eccentric soothsayer (J.K. Simmons) who works out of a jumped-up camper shell in a parking lot. This psychic doesn’t go in for crystal balls or mood lighting. He’s more interested in fly fishing. Still, when he starts his spiel, Jimmy is more than happy to play along with what he takes to be a the same sort of spiel he uses in his own line of work. But when the psychic goes beyond a prediction about sports and a sudden windfall from Dallas, he’s overtaken with a seizure that puts an end to the session and the return of Jimmy’s money. It would all be pretty forgettable, even the seizure, except that the predictions come true, sending Jimmy back to the middle of nowhere and the more ominous warning that his time is short, and while the details aren’t clear, he is assured that he will be safe until the first snow. Hence the title. And that, further, there is nothing Jimmy can do to change what is going to happen. Belief in things unseen is not Jimmy’s style, plus there’s the disgruntled ex-coworker, the toothsome girlfriend (Piper Perabo) itching for a commitment, and the old partner from Jimmy’s shady past that keep him firmly rooted in the moment. Still, he can’t quite shrug off the prediction, even when his best pal (William Fitchner) explains to him exactly how fake psychics work scams like this on the gullible.
Instead of keeping the action streamlined, Fergus and Ostby go in several different directions at once and show no restraint when it comes to overwriting all of them. Jimmy’s standard slow descent into madness, one of Pearce’s fortes it should be noted, becomes a sort of peripatetic crawl as the script becomes progressively less focused instead of hewing to a tight and lean through story. Even Pearce can’t save the cliché sequence of Jimmy holed up in a cheap motel with a liquor bottle and a gun awaiting he knows now what with a hyper-alertness that turns in on itself. The moves are all there, but it feels more like an actor’s exercise being blocked out in a master class rather than something aimed at the gut. Fergus shows an appreciation of the classic visuals of the thriller genre, but with no inspiration. The motifs are predictable and the looming sense of dread with which the film should be saturated is palpably not present. When that FIRST SNOW finally does arrive, it is just so much fluffy stuff rather than the kiss of death.
FIRST SNOW is torpid where it should be tense, dull where it should be sharp, and so caught up with its big themes that it forgets to give them a compelling stage on which to play out.