April 6, 2007

First Snow stirs up a flurry but fails to raise a storm

As I begin this review of First Snow, I’m reminded of the last stanza of a great Dylan song: “I ain’t a-sayin’ you treated me unkind./ You coulda done better, but I don’t mind./ You just kinda wasted my precious time/ but don’t think twice, it’s all right.”

That’s kind of how I feel about First Snow. It’s not that it is a bad movie. It’s just not that memorable. I was decently entertained for 97 minutes, but I feel I could have seen or done something more worthwhile with my time.

First Snow is a fairly light, by-the-numbers film that deals with fortune telling and the concomitant issues of free will and determinism. Jimmy Starks (played by Guy Pearce of Memento) is a smooth-talking salesman with unflatteringly long hair and a perpetual shit-eating grin. Somehow, he gets the idea that the real money is in jukeboxes, specifically the Wurlitzer 1015. “People can’t help but stuff ’em full ’o cash!” he exclaims with the incredulous, wide-eyed rapture of an infomercial host.

It’s fun to see Pearce take on the role of the sleazy huckster. However, this persona gradually disappears, only to be replaced by basically the same intensity he exhibited in Memento. Unfortunately, First Snow lacks the heavy-duty philosophical foundations that made you want to view Memento several times over. What precipitates Jimmy’s transformation is his encounter with a mysterious fortuneteller who seems to foretell an ominous future. What follows is your typical how-can-I-change-my-fate-now-that-I-know-it plot.

A better treatment of this subject is, of course, the Simpsons episode where Lisa goes through the same fortune spiel and asks the same old existential questions. “No, you can’t change anything,” says the jaded fortune teller, “but try to act surprised.”

The makers of First Snow haven’t done much that’s original or daring with this standard plot, though I suppose there are worse sins. Instead, the film feels like something you might give to ninth-graders to teach them how to detect themes in literature. Everything hits you over the head, as in the voice-over at the beginning, where Jimmy muses, “A man chooses his own destiny, right? Nothing makes the gods laugh harder.” This is profound stuff when compared to A Separate Peace, but most of us (on this campus, anyway) have probably outgrown it.

The film evolves into a thriller when an old friend, Vincent (Shea Whigham), who Jimmy betrayed long ago, comes back to haunt him in what appears to be a vengeful, drug-induced psychosis. Vincent sets up an illegal telemarketing auto-dialer to harass Jimmy at all hours of the night, driving the latter to utter distraction. (Another great Simpsons bit...but I digress.)

The roles become reversed. Jimmy turns into the crazy one, seeing portentous “clues” to his impending fate in the most everyday, innocuous events. That, of course, gives Vincent the upper hand in his cat-and-mouse game. Thus, for us, trapped as we are within Jimmy’s perspective, Vincent becomes the prime mover of the plot. However, rest assured that the two men eventually return to their proper roles, with Jimmy reclaiming sanity once more in a peculiar sort of existential calm.

Now, perhaps this is just my own weird predilection, but just for once, couldn’t we have a protagonist who loses his grip on reality—and never regains it? To me, that would be a much more daring, not to mention more terrifying, conclusion to a picture. It’s endings like that that make King Lear so tragic and episodes of The Twilight Zone so creepy. Is it too much to ask for a film that leaves its audience unsettled rather than coddled?

I’d say you could make worse choices on a Saturday night than to see First Snow. But you wouldn’t miss much by waiting for the DVD, or even by waiting to catch it at 4 a.m. on IFC or Bravo. It’ll pass for a worthy time-killer when you’re suffering from insomnia brought on by an incessant auto-dialer.