Directed by Mark Fergus. Written by Mark Fergus & Hank Ostby. Released by Freestyle Releasing.
I was a little bit hesitant to see Mark Fergus’s First Snow, as it fell afoul of two of my general theories. The first theory, which I’ll dub the “Suspiciously Good Cast Theory”, holds that movies with a good cast but no advance buzz usually are not very good. This movie has Guy Pearce, Piper Perabo, William Fichtner, and J.K. Simmons, yet I did not hear or read anyone talking it up from any festival showings or advance reviews or anything. Granted, those aren’t huge names, but they’re good actors with good reputations, especially Pearce. Yet had I not seen the trailer a couple of times at the theater, I’d have not heard about it at all. So that’s red flag number one.
Red flag number two is that is was being distributed by Freestlye Releasing, who’s such a low-rent outfit that they haven’t even updated their website for six months or so. Click on First Snow from the front page and it gives you an (empty) summary page for Civic Duty. Pathetic. I’ve generally come to think of them distributors of second-rate films, and with the exception of Find Me Guilty and The Illusionist (which I didn’t like anyway, but am giving the benefit of the doubt because lots of others did), that reputation seems well earned.
But what the hell, eh? I went to see it anyway, and the results were generally positive. The trailer doesn’t really do it justice; it makes it look much more like a noir thriller than it is. But it’s really about destiny, and the mess a guy makes trying to change what he thinks his destiny is. Fergus and Hawk Ostby, his co-screenwriter, may have bitten off a little bit more than they’re able to chew here, but they’re onto something.
The movie begins with Jimmy (Pearce) stranded in a small desert town after his car breaks down. To kill time, he visits a fortune teller (Simmons), who gives him some gambling advice and a promise of a financial windfall coming Jimmy’s way before abruptly ending the session. After the gambling tip and the windfall turn out as predicted (duh), Jimmy starts to get the feeling that the fortune teller saw more than he was letting on. After visiting him again, of course he hears the worst, and the rest of the film deals with his efforts to get stop whatever terrible fate is coming his way.
I thought the movie had a lot of interesting questions to ask about the idea of fate and how much control we have over it. These aren’t new questions, obviously, but I thought they were handled in an interesting way, with Jimmy making an absolute mess of his life at the same time he’s trying hardest to get control of it. One of my pet peeves in movies are plots that are driven solely by stupid decisions by their protagonists, but Fergus and Ostby do a good job of making things believable enough. And Fergus is a clever enough director to be able to create an atmosphere of claustrophobic confusion. We’ve all had moments where we know that we’re being paranoid and irrational about something – a loved one seems too late in getting home, or a car seems to have been following you for too long – but just can’t it out of our heads. That’s really what the movie is like.
But like I said, it does bite off a bit too much, and while the filmmakers don’t find themselves cornered at the end, they’re unable to come up with something that feels fully satisfying. And a couple of times, like with his third trip to see the fortune teller, Jimmy makes decisions that I don’t think make sense even in the confused and frustrated state of mind that he’s in. But overall, I thought the movie was a nice surprise in an otherwise tough time of year for film.