The idea of fate having a grip on our lives hasn't exactly gone out of vogue since the days of Oedipus Rex, but the notion has been relegated mostly to romantic comedies promoting the existence of soul mates. Mark Fergus' First Snow uses the neo-noir genre for a more serious examination of fate. Here, as in Sophocles, a man experiences fate as something both within and without him: the tragic anti-hero of First Snow is lost in a labyrinth, but runs ever faster toward his "no exit." At the heart of the film is a classical paradox: can man participate in creating his own destiny, even if he cannot change it?
High-minded though it may be, First Snow's world is flat, and doesn't take the material beyond its origins or even in a particularly distinctive sideways direction. The picture escapes oblivion thanks to a magnetic turn by Guy Pearce, who stars as seedy salesman Jimmy Starks. Traveling down a lost highway in the American Southwest, Starks must make a pitstop with his overheated car, so he whiles away the time, first in a bar and then in the mobile home of Vacaro (J.K. Simmons), a laconic fortune teller. After a few trivial predictions, a sudden seizure spooks both men and sends a skeptical Starks back out on the road.
When the oracle's predictions prove true, Starks begins to wonder what Vacaro wouldn't tell him. Under duress, Vacaro spills the beans: Starks is doomed to die, sometime after the first snow of the year. "Your fate lies on whatever road you take," the seer explains. "Even if you choose to run from it." The presence of Pearce and the Memento-esque flavor of mood and image clinch that First Snow's plot is booby-trapped, but there's fair mystery to be had, in the how and the existential why. The suspects for Starks' demise include a faulty heart valve and two ex-partners the salesman has criminally wronged in the pursuit of ill-gotten gains.
In both cases, Starks lured his collateral-damage victims with the promise of loyalty, as mentor or friend. The art of the deal can't purchase Starks from his latest trouble: paranoia causes reckless, unconsidered moves then fearful agoraphobia, neither of which do him any good. In a moment that could use more emotional clarity, Starks finally accepts the advice of the oracle and tries to look at his curse as a gift: the forecast that gives him time to get his affairs in order. Starks finds calm in the eye of the storm, allowing him to make amends with the men he's wronged, and see off his patient girlfriend (Piper Perabo).
Since Fergus and co-screenwriter Hawk Ostby penned last year's celebrated Children of Men, First Snow not surprisingly develops more interest than the average thriller. Still, the film lives and dies by its self-serious theatricality. "Nothing makes the gods laugh harder" than fate, says Vacaro, but the moody film has little use for humor. The involving opening stretch successfully evokes the masculine dialogue of David Mamet, but when Fergus allows his pace to slacken, the film never quite recovers. The final confrontation between Starks and one of the aggrieved parties arrives at the table undercooked and chewy; like a selection from a book of acting scenes, the duet suffers from lack of context.
It's a shame that the screenwriters didn't see the value in further developing Vacaro, a character arguably more interesting than the lead. If he's a con man, there's a story in his practiced skill and power of suggestion. If his power is real, the gift is a curse, a way to pay his grocery bill, but one that gives him an imperative to keep moving rather than invite the troubles of fame and fortune. Regardless, Fergus and Ostby doggedly stick with Starks, and they know enough to give his road a few turns. Seeing where the road leads, audiences will be forgiven for asking their own existential question: "Is that all there is?"