Review: 'First Snow' not quite a thriller 

Fate, that most tedious of screen subjects, is the focus of yet another thriller built around a protagonist trying to thwart destiny — the indie psychodrama "First Snow." Action and angst mix well in the hands of director Mark Fergus, but there isn’t enough import or originality to offset how contrived it seems.

Set in New Mexico environs where the desolation element spells existential anguish, the story presents the tailspin of linoleum salesman Jimmy Starks (Guy Pearce), a fast-talker with shoulder-length hair and a plan to get rich in the jukebox trade. Jimmy starts unraveling after a roadside fortune-teller (J.K. Simmons) informs him, following some remarkably accurate sunnier predictions, that he will have "no more tomorrows" after the first snow.

Though his girlfriend (Piper Perabo) and business buddy (William Fichtner) tell him not to worry, Jimmy can’t shake the soothsayer’s forecast and obsesses over who might want him dead. An employee (Rick Gonzales) he callously fired? A recently paroled old friend (Shea Whigham) he ratted on? A frantic dash to preserve his future forces Jimmy to acknowledge his tainted past. And a blizzard, of course, approaches.

For a lengthy spell, the movie holds you.

Displaying a gift for mood in his directorial debut, Fergus absorbingly blends the commonplace with the mythic in his barren landscapes, which also serve as an effective complement to Jimmy’s agitation. Suspense-wise, he keeps you immersed in the intrigue surrounding whether Jimmy’s death-dodging efforts are on-target or self-defeating.

Eventually, however, it becomes clear that the film is too low-intensity to develop into a knockout thriller and too insubstantial to triumph as human-condition drama. You feel as if Fergus will deliver such successes soon, but is, right now, merely almost there.

Stories about prophecy and destiny often trap themselves in gimmicks and devices, and as Jimmy rushes to make amends and evade the snow, the plot indeed eclipses the characters. The big-picture themes — the fate vs. will debate, the minuscule nature of our lives — are neither fresh nor stirringly presented by Fergus and co-writer Hawk Ostby (joint credits include "Children of Men").

As for Pearce, he’s terrific at playing tormented souls on truth or redemption missions, but, while solid, he’s weaker under Fergus’ lower-key direction than he was in "Memento" and "The Proposition." This film, given its other shortcomings, demands a riveting protagonist.

Among the supporting cast, Whigham, sizzling as Jimmy’s burned childhood pal, merits top mention.

First Snow **½

Starring Guy Pearce, William Fichtner, Piper Perabo, J.K. Simmons, Shea Whigham

Written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby

Directed by Mark Fergus

Rated R

Running time 1 hour, 41 minutes

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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