March 24th, 2007
It's quite admirable of Guy Pearce to try and eschew a Hollywood career after his star-making turn in "L.A. Confidential," by appearing in films like "Rules of Engagement" and "The Count of Monte Cristo." However, if he keeps making films like "First Snow," he might need to go back to the studios to find a suitable comeback role in a major film, so he can keep biting the hand that occasionally feeds him.
To watch the career trajectory of Pearce and his fellow Aussie and “L.A. Confidential” co-star Russell Crowe is an interesting study in contrast. Crowe wholeheartedly embraced Hollywood as much as it seemed to embrace him, starring in a string of big-budget dramas directed by some of cinema’s biggest directors that would bring him worldwide acclaim and a Best Actor Oscar a mere three years after Curtis Hanson helped make him a star. Pearce, on the other hand, has walked the edge between studio and indie film, between America and Australia, between guaranteed obscurity and attempted blockbusting. One hopes Pearce got something out of making “First Snow,” because whatever it was does not translate to the screen.
A character-driven drama does not need a likeable protagonist or a clearly defined narrative to grasp an audience. Where “First Snow” fails is giving us a protagonist we can remotely give a damn about, and Pearce’s Jimmy Starks is never developed enough to get us to that point. It’s clear the filmmakers, who were co-writers of the excellent screenplay for Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men,” were trying to build some kind of retro-Hitchcockian atmosphere, but this is the kind of lazy name-checking in lieu of building any kind of true tone that lies at the heart of the film. (And why do all modern mystery/thrillers always have to be Hitchcockian anyway? Wasn’t there one other filmmaker in the past fifty years who made mysteries or thrillers besides Hitchcock? One wonders what the modern cinematic landscape would look like if Truffaut has done a series of in-depth interviews with Edward Dmytryk or Anthony Mann.)
In a nutshell, Jimmy Starks is a New Mexico-based traveling salesman with a mouth as big as the Grand Canyon and ambitions that make his mouth look positively sylphlike. Jimmy has what he finally thinks will be the thing that puts him where he wants to be: jukeboxes. Restored classic Wurlitzer 1015 jukeboxes, to be exact, the kind of classic anyone who might ever want to own one (myself included) would be lucky to own. Jimmy’s got a nice place to live, which he sometimes shares with his pretty girlfriend Deirdre (Piper Perabo, at her radiant Julia Roberts-lite best), and she’s ready to move their relationship to the next level, wanting to buy a small plot of land in Taos. But what fun would that movie be? Nope, fate has something else picked out for Jimmy, and has the perfect messenger for him, Vacaro (an almost unrecognizable JK Simmons, easily the best part of the film) a roadside oracle who “sees” Jimmy’s future, and it ain’t all puppies and sunshine. Vacaro doesn’t actually tell Jimmy the worst of what he saw, which drives Jimmy into a panic, especially after he discovers his old friend Vincent (Shea Whigham) has just gotten out of jail. Jimmy and Vincent were in business together, and Vincent may have gone to prison for something Jimmy had dome, and Jimmy is determined to find out if Vincent is holding a grudge against him.
Nothing against Mr. Whigham, but if the viewer is going to believe someone can physically intimidate someone like Guy Pearce, the filmmakers needed to cast someone whose overall appearance is imposing (someone like Russell Crowe) or needed to show Vincent as more than just a drug-using ex-con who keeps a gun under his bed. If Vincent is supposed to be one tough customer, let’s see it. That’s the whole point of film, guys. Of course, it’s possible Vincent isn’t supposed to be a mean hombre, that Jimmy’s ever-growing paranoia is what’s fueling this erroneous belief, but then show how Jimmy could become so susceptible so quickly to his potentially mistaken fear. Either way, the meat that is supposed to power the story is not enough to make a tasty meal.
On the plus side, Eric Edward’s sparse cinematography of the Southwest and the always reliable Cliff Martinez’s haunting score greatly assist in creating what little ambiance the film has. First-time director Fergus and his writing partner may have some success as scenarists, but it’s clear he became far too seduced by the power of the director’s chair to remember that a strong story and vibrant characters are just as important as the visuals, that both need to work together to make an exciting whole.
My rating: C-