First Snow [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - MVD Visual
Review written by and copyright: Robert Segedy (22nd February 2021).
The Film

Neo-Noir: according to the Free Dictionary online, "neo-noir" is defined as a film that is set in contemporary modern times, but showing characteristics of a film noir, in plot or style. As many reader’s know I am fairly nuts about film noir and yes, that includes hard boiled films, moody photography, existential dread, and anything where Raymond Burr is the heavy. So, what is it about noir that fascinates us so? Is it the overall mood of the film, the pervading feeling of a careless god that deals out acts of fate without regard? Is it the overall mise-en-scène with its shadowy streets, dark photography, sober soundtrack, and necessary femme fatale? Why is it that I will repeatedly watch Billy Wilder’s classic "Double Indemnity" (1944) over and over again? Yes, Barbara Stanwyck is partially the reason and sure, Edgar G. Robinson’s Barton Keyes speech about his “little man inside of him” always gives me a thrill, but there has to be more than just that? I think that it is the overall doomed feelings of Fred MacMurray’s heel character Walter Neff that compels me to sit mesmerized and watch the film repeatedly. Neff’s character is not exactly likeable; he’s a pesky insurance salesman who literally leaps into a plot to murder
Which brings us to today’s selection: "First Snow". Not exactly a perfect film, but for a directorial debut by
Mark Fergus, I will say that I have seen much, much worse. Written by Fergus and Hawk Ostby, the team that previously brought us the acclaimed "Children of Men" (2006), this film requires the viewer to patiently engage as the machinations of fate are invoked. Not that being patient is necessarily a bad thing, either. However, let’s begin at the beginning: we are shown the view from a driver’s perspective of a highway at night. We hear a voice narrating a monologue as the car keeps on eating the asphalt. “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.” The scene cuts to a flashback of a childhood memory; two small boys in cowboy hats are playing cops and robbers with each other, pointing cap guns and laughing. The scene fades out. We cut to a close up of a car’s parking lights, the next shot is a partial shot of the headlights from the front. Next, we see a stop sign and there are two balloons tied to the post, one a deflated heart. Cut to inside the car, a close up of Jimmy Starks (Guy Pearce) face as he clicks the radio’s tuner; we hear a newscaster talking about an approaching snowstorm. The film begins showing us a car driving down the highway as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s song “Working Man” plays on the soundtrack. Jimmy is having car trouble and pulls into a near empty lot. He approaches a man that is working on a car and immediately begins his spiel: he is late for an appointment, he is married and expecting a child soon, can he get his car repaired quickly?

Everything that Jimmy says is either a lie or a proposition. He turns out to be a salesman and he exudes the sort of charisma that one finds in these types: aggressive, slick, fast talking. What Jimmy actually is, is a flooring salesman. He asks the garage attendant if there is any entertainment around. The man replies that there is a nice mountain range nearby, makes for a beautiful sunset. However, he is talking to the wrong man: Jimmy doesn’t care about sunsets. He makes his way across the parking lot and he spies a sign advertising “Fortunes Told.” The man is named Vacaro (J.K. Simmons in a low key appreciated role) and Jimmy enquires about a reading. Jimmy wants to be entertained; he is looking for something that he can tell his clients about later on. Except that Jimmy is going to be told something that he can’t handle: the truth.

In life there are basic truths that we are all curious about: what is our purpose for living, what is in store for us, is our fate predestined or can we try and alter it? Do we shape our destinies by living them or are we simply following along a storyline that has been set down for us? Is there such a thing as a curse and if so, how can we break its pattern? These are some of the ambiguous ideas that the screenplay attempts to address, and it opens up a Pandora’s box that doesn’t supply any easy pat answers. For that reason, I applaud "First Snow" because it is trying to be more than a senseless thrill ride.

The film is fairly lean. The setting is unique as well. Instead of being set in a large urban city, it takes place in Albuquerque. At times, the landscape is bleached by the sun, the sky a bright blue covering overhead. Jimmy Starks as portrayed by Guy Pearce is a long haired, ferret features sharpie; he talks fast, smoke a lot, even when sitting still, his brain is whirling away like an overworked machine. When Vacaro reads Starks fortune he tells him that the energy is stronger if he makes contact. At first Vacaro tells Jimmy some readily available facts about him; then he starts to become more exact. He tells Jimmy that he has strong ambitions, that this quality has brought him trouble in the past. Jimmy quickly changes topics. He asks about betting on a basketball game and Vacaro tells him not to bet against the home team. Jimmy thinks that Vacaro is humoring him because the team’s main player is out with a knee injury, but Vacaro stands firm. Next, he tells Jimmy that he has a noisy mind, cluttered with fears. Jimmy probes for more information. He doesn’t believe that he is falling for this sideshow act being played out in a tiny house trailer by a grizzled man. Jimmy enquires about an upcoming business venture that he is attempting to explore and is told that the venture is secure. Then Vacaro tells Jimmy that he will benefit from a windfall, a connection in Dallas. Jimmy reacts that he doesn’t know anyone in Dallas, but he will happily take the money. Then suddenly Vacaro has something akin to a seizure; he lets go of Jimmy’s hands and then informs Jimmy that the reading is over. Jimmy is curious but also, he feels as if he has been played. Some theatrical flourishes added to the act to make it a bit more interesting, perhaps? Vacaro is dead serious and returns Jimmy’s money to him. Jimmy is angry and he confronts the man. When pressed for details he is told “I saw no more roads. No more tomorrows…. You’re safe until the first snow.” This is the perfect set up for what follows.

Jimmy is the type of person that goes through life and he shrugs off the bad times and just keeps moving on. The past is something that is best not dwelled upon. Onward and upward. However, all this is merely posturing. Jimmy wears the face of an easy-going smooth operator, but underneath all of his false calmness there lies the true Jimmy. He is a man with a checkered past and the ghosts that he thought that he banished will return to claim justice again. And when Vacaro’s predictions all come true, against all odds, Jimmy is stripped bare of pretensions. He is a nerve wracked man facing a world that is cold and indifferent and he seems to be on a one-way track with the odds stacked against him. First, a routine follow up examination reveals a faulty heart condition. Then Jimmy is told to fire his protégé and that goes badly. A series of odd phone calls continue to plague him, the caller’s voice garbled and faint. Throughout the film the director continues on building a sense of ominous gloom. There is a small scene where Jimmy is sitting outside having a cup of coffee and a smoke. In the background we hear car horns blowing in alarm. Jimmy glances down and his eye focuses on the surgeon’s warning imprinted on the pack. A newspaper on the next table is folded over and its under page is blowing in the wind; we are shown the headline of an article “Blood samples linked…” A man in a leather jacket jaywalks and is nearly struck by a passing car; this brief scene is loaded with omens. Something wicked this way comes.

Jimmy while out on a sales call at a local mall runs into an old acquaintance Tom Morelane (Adam Scott) who mentions that he encountered Maggie (Jackie Burroughs), Vincent’s mother. Vincent (Shea Whigham) is an old friend of Jimmy’s that has recently been paroled from a three year sentence in Oklahoma; the details of which are barely hinted at, but it is clear that Jimmy was involved and that he snitched on his pal in order to retain his freedom. Once again it is as if all the chickens have returned to roost.
“Your fate lies on whatever road you take even if you choose to run from it.”

Life continues to grow more complicated with each passing day. Jimmy is slowly obsessing with the gypsy’s predictions and he tries going to another psychic but dismisses her when he quickly learns that she does not possess the true gift of divination. At the end of his teether Jimmy tries once again to contact the man who warned him of something dangerous in the future. He ends up holed up in a seedy motel, alone with a bottle, drinking to gain some clarity on the situation. Jimmy ends up driving to Oklahoma and breaks into Vincent’s bleak house in order to find out if his old friend has been calling him and hanging up. Later upon returning home he sees a large amount of calls left on his answering machine which he deletes without listening to them. Meanwhile every time Jimmy gets into the car the radio announcer is murmuring on about an approaching snowstorm; Jimmy tries running, hiding but ultimately it is time to simply face his friend and face the music. Throughout the film the director has skillfully played his hand, slowly adding additional stressors on Jimmy until he is like a rubber band stretched to its breaking point.

A late-night meeting is arranged with Vincent; it is time for Jimmy to come clean and tell his friend the truth. Vincent is armed and is apparently high on narcotics. Jimmy has brought with him a large bag of cash to offer Vincent as a peace offering but Vincent is rambling, telling some story about a fellow convict that ended up dying in a hostile confrontation. Vincent has an arm around Jimmy’s neck, his head aligned with the other man’s, when Vincent pulls the trigger, hoping to kill both of them simultaneously. Miraculously Jimmy escapes and he leaves the dead man behind but where is to run to now? He is alone, at the wheel, stopped at an empty interstate intersection, a deflated balloon drifting in the night winds. The audience is left to ponder Jimmy’s fate now; has he literally dodged a bullet or is this just another bump in the road ahead? No answers are given, and we are left to think whatever thoughts we may have as the credits roll.

Video

Presented in HD widescreen 2.35:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 compression. Cinematographer Eric Allan Edwards captures the hearty landscape of Albuquerque and he does a great job with his close-up work. The picture is exceptionally good with many shots ranging from bright outside sunshine to dark moody interiors. Blacks are deep and rich, and the overall production is impressive for a lower budget film.

Audio

the soundtrack is English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround with exceptional mixing; dialogue is evenly centered, and the background audio is sparse and not overwhelming. The soundtrack’s composer is Cliff Martinez and his spare guitar work floats out of the speakers. Optional subtitles are included in English and Spanish.

Extras

"Final Omen" (3:12) featurette are brief interviews with the director and the crew.

"Behind the Scenes" (7:06) featurette is literally that, various scenes with no sound.

J.K. Simmons interview (1:20) the actor talks about what he liked concerning his character.

Guy Pearce and Piper Perabo interviews (6:53) both actors talk about their parts in the film.

Original theatrical trailer (1:59) is included as are a collection of bonus trailers for:

- "Even Money" (2:16)
- "Haven" (2:34)
- "The Illusionist" (2:28)
- "Possession" (2:24)

Packaging

Comes packaged in a regular Blu-ray keep case.

Overall

I enjoyed this sleeper of a film and whole heartedly recommend it to fans of Film Noir and those who desire something with more substance than the latest book office winner. The overall film is extremely well done, and the casting is superb as well. Guy Pearce really makes the film his own and his performance is well nuanced.

The Film: A Video: A Audio: A Extras: B Overall: A-

 


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