Monday, February 07, 2011

First Snow (2006)

"Your fate lies on whatever road you take even if you choose to run from it."

Whether it’s eyeballing a good pair of legs (Double Indemnity), picking up a hitch-hiker (Detour), or taking a job as a used car salesman (The Hot Spot), noir characters make decisions that lead to trouble. These characters can exhibit a range of conduct that stretches from morally questionable to viciously murderous, but however they attempt to shape their destinies, they all have one thing in common: no one escapes from fate. This is one of the defining traits of noir. The 2006 neo-noir film First Snow, a doom-ridden tale from first-time director Mark Fergus is a superb, hallmark example of one man’s struggle against his fate, and the film works so well not only for its excellent, well-paced script, but also for its well-defined main character--cocky flooring salesman Jimmy Starks (Guy Pearce).

Starks doesn’t take life too seriously, and this is partially due to his supreme confidence. There are some grubby issues in his past, but Starks appears to have walked away unscathed. While he isn’t a ‘bad’ person, he’s not someone you’d want to rely on. For Starks, lying comes easily and the film almost immediately hints at moral weakness and touches of vanity. He’s a quintessential salesman. This translates to Starks believing that he’s capable of defining his destiny and that he can talk anyone into anything. He talks his best friend Ed (William Fichtner) into covering for him at work, he’s trying to convince his boss Roy (Luce Rains) to invest in vintage “fully-refurbished” Wurlitzers, and he even talks his harried girlfriend, forgiving real estate agent Deidre (Piper Perabo) into ditching clients and having sex.

Starks and Deidre live in Albuquerque in a tiny pueblo-style home--one of many in a bland new development. She would like to put down roots and has her eye on a fixer upper on 10 acres in Taos, but this not a goal Starks shares. He is right at the stage in life when he can no longer delude himself that he’s going places, and yet he’s convinced that his big break is right around the corner. That big break is finally just within reach when he’s pulled back by fate to pay for the sins of his past.

The film begins with Starks driving on his sales rounds when his car breaks down at a desert pit stop. Stuck waiting for repairs, and with a few hours to kill, Starks tries to turn the wasted hours into a sale. Bending the ear of a disinterested bar owner, he makes a pitch for a Wurlitzer he doesn’t yet have to sell. Handing his flooring salesman business card to the skeptical owner along with obligatory flattery, Starks doesn’t grasp just how sleazy he appears.

Wandering around the desert oasis waiting for his car, Starks eyeballs the various vendors who are gathered hoping to snare the occasional stray tourist with local wares. Outside of one trailer is a dusty, faded unimpressive sign: “Fortunes Told” and Starks decides to pay the money with the attitude you’d expect from someone at a circus sideshow. He views the experience as entertainment, so he’s disappointed at the lack of atmosphere. Just as the trailer seems an unlikely setting for a fortune-teller, the psychic, a blue-eyed, middle-aged cowboy named Vacaro (J.K. Simmons) is also not exactly what you’d expect. No crystal ball. No candles. No costume. The what-you-see-is-what-you-get set-up is so banal that Starks complains. He was hoping for more of an “effort”--more of a sales pitch poured into the experience.

The palm reading which starts as a lark initially seems simple with Vacaro telling Starks a few things that could easily guessed. Starks wants to know if his car will make it home and whether the new business venture (with the Wurlitzers) will come to fruition. The reading is fairly mundane until the cowboy mentions some trouble in Jimmy’s past. Starks rapidly switches the subject and instead asks the seemingly safe question whether or not the New Mexico Wolves will win or lose the next game. Vacaro insists that the team will win, yet this seems unlikely since a star player is out with a crippling injury. While Starks finds this information incredulous, he’s somewhat mollified when told that a “large sum of money [is]coming to you by way of Dallas.

The reading is abruptly curtailed, however, with no explanation when Vacaro appears to experience some sort of psychic disturbance. Starks first thinks it’s “part of the show,” and he wants to “go again.” Vacaro tells him the reading is over, and when Starks expresses displeasure, the cowboy returns his money and tells him to leave. Starks decides he’s been ripped-off and tells the cowboy to “work on your presentation a little.” By calling Vacaro a fellow salesman, Starks not only denigrates the experience but also subtly reassures himself that he has superior talent and that he still calls the shots. But underneath his bravado, it’s an unsettling incident, and from this point on, Starks begins to feel a sense of growing unease. This unease is compounded by the first of many hang-up calls that plague him.

The next day, Roy calls Starks about a problem with another employee, Lopez (Rick Gonzalez), who, according to Roy, is “padding” his expensive account. It’s up to Starks to fire Lopez which he does in the middle of a hotdog lunch while he fusses his hair and assures Lopez that he has a great future. Lopez, who’s been ‘shown the ropes’ and encouraged by his mentor Starks to “fuck the rules” when it comes to expense accounts, explodes with anger. Lopez feels betrayed while Starks fails to see the deeper implications of the event. But since nothing sticks to Starks, he initially forgets the incident and refuses to feel any responsibility for Lopez’s firing.

The feeling of unease Starks feels increases when, against the odds, the New Mexico Wolves win their match, and then he receives word of backing for his Wurlitzer project after Roy attends a conference in Dallas. Plagued by hang-up calls, and a health scare, Starks then receives a death threat. Not only does Starks now believe in the psychic’s power, but he also wonders what else Vacaro saw in his abruptly curtailed reading. He hunts down Vacaro, and the psychic reveals that he “saw no more roads left. No more tomorrows.” From this point on, Starks loses his confidence and grows increasingly edgy and paranoid as he tries to escape the death sentence hanging over his head.

As a salesman, Starks thinks he knows all the tricks of the trade. His slickness translates to his belief that everything is a sales pitch which either works or fails. The psychic’s failure to use a sales pitch, no bells and whistles with which to garnish his ‘act,’ initially annoys Starks who thinks he’s buying an experience. Starks interprets this to mean that he’s been ripped off and that Vacaro is a ‘bad salesman’ of his psychic powers as he fails to deliver on the hocus-pocus factor, but then when Vacaro’s predictions come true, and Starks’ faith in his ability to shape his own destiny is shaken to its foundations. As Starks’ life unravels, his arrogance melts. He fails to convince anyone else of his story, and this is a change for Starks; he’s always been able to convince the people in his life to bend to his desires. A frightened Starks tries to avoid the prediction, but instead he finds himself hurtling towards it--caught in the sticky web of fate.

As the plot develops, First Snow introduces some interesting philosophical questions: would we really want to know when we are going to die? And if we did know, how would we act? At what point is Starks’ fate sealed? When he turns snitch on a best friend? When he visits a palm reader? When he fires Lopez? Or when he looks up Vince (Shea Whigham)? If character is fate, then all these incidents are just marks on the map to the inevitable:

“This road you’re on, you put yourself on this road. On this exact night, you chose this.

A Man makes his own destiny, right? Nothing makes the gods laugh harder.”

First Snow director Mark Fergus co-wrote the film with his long-time writing partner, Hawk Ostby. The two men live on different coasts, but have an interesting arrangement, responding to each other’s writing and making it a rule to never write in the same room. The script is evidence of the team’s intense honing of the theme of fate reiterated through the synchronicity of events. The film’s photography emphasizes man against the landscape and night shots of endless dark, empty highways while the excellent score complements the film’s moodiness.

I’ve read some negative reviews of First Snow--reviews that are quite harsh and dismissive. Perhaps it takes a noir fan to appreciate the role of fate in this tale--a dark well-executed sleeper film with an almost perfect delivery.

Written by Guy Savage


  1. First Snow was a fantastic film! Pearce was perfect throughout! Great review!

  2. I was just thinking about how great a noir this was a few days ago, then today I check my RSS for your site and BAM! there it is. Thank you very much N.O.T.W. you run a fantastic site.


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