First Snow: Prairie, lone companion 

Debut effort casts a new light on film noir

Usually the sins and crimes of film noir are committed in cities by night. The colossal shadows of tenements and office buildings conceal humans behaving badly, while blinking neon signs and lone figures in streetlights only serve as beacons to even worse actions.

But just because film noir translates as "dark film," that doesn't mean bright lights and wide-open spaces can dispel evil deeds. Two of the Coen Brothers' great modern-noir films, Blood Simple and Fargo, take place in rural flatlands with empty expanses of baking prairie and chilling snow, respectively. Against such featureless landscapes, tough noir anti-heroes find a physical isolation to match their status as alienated loners.

First Snow is a draggy but cunning low-budget indie noir that takes place in a setting where you can see fate coming a mile away, but can find no place to hide. Guy Pearce of Memento is cast with such talented character actors as J.K. Simmons and William Fichtner, but his true co-star is the array of endless Southwestern locations. As Jimmy Starks, Pearce portrays a fast-talking salesman whose nonstop pitching seems particularly hollow with the timeless hills and deserts as the background.

A cocky young guy on the make, Jimmy could fit in anywhere hustling anything, but happens to be a flooring salesman based in New Mexico. He keeps talking up his dream of unloading a "fleet" of vintage Wurlitzer jukeboxes with original 45s, and his appreciation of their nostalgia value may be the closest thing he has to depth.

When a car accident strands him in the middle of nowhere, he visits a local fortune teller for a lark. J.K. Simmons, best-known as bombastic J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man movies, does a superb, 180-degree turn as Vacaro, a humble, plainspoken shaman who eschews mystical mumbo-jumbo. The soothsayer makes a few predictions, then gets spooked and refuses to finish. Only after Jimmy badgers him does Vacaro admit that Jimmy will meet a dire fate of unknown origin, coinciding with the season's first snow, which could fall in weeks if not days.

At first, Jimmy shrugs off the prophecy of doom and maintains the upbeat, unreflective front with his girlfriend (Piper Perabo) and best friend (William Fichtner). But he grows increasingly obsessed that his days are numbered, and while sitting at a sidewalk cafe proves hypersensitive to potential dangers and sinister words on a newspaper. He becomes increasingly paranoid when he receives mysterious threats and phone calls, possibly from his old friend Vincent (Shea Whigham), recently sprung from prison.

From his coarse drag queen in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to his icy, ambitious police lieutenant in L.A. Confidential, Pearce never seems to give the same performance twice. As a salesman, Jimmy proves slick but untrustworthy, while in casual moments he's almost opaque, as if intimacy is foreign to him. Pearce effectively captures Jimmy's obsession and takes him through a variation on the stages of dying (anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance). Jimmy's personality gets deeper even as his lifeline gets shorter.

Debut filmmaker Mark Fergus co-wrote the film with Hawk Ostby, and though both are credited scripters for Children of Men, First Snow tends to drift. Vincent remains a menacing offscreen voice for most of the movie, which fires Jimmy's paranoia, but the slow-burning plot gets little chance to build momentum. Perabo and Fichtner get too little to do besides show concern for Jimmy's uncharacteristic behavior, while Jimmy seems to make too many return visits to the psychic, despite Simmons' excellence in the role.

As a director, Fergus shows keen abilities at creating mood, and Jimmy's nervy search of Vincent's squalid apartment could fit in a traditionally shadowy noir film. Some sequences stray from convention, such as the way the first snow finally falls and seems at once purifyingly white and ominously blank, depending on whether you think death should be embraced or feared. First Snow affirms that in film-noir stories, heroes can be surrounded by darkness even in the unblinking light of the sun.

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