Any movie that finds a place for the remarkable Jackie Burroughs begins with bonus points. Here playing the mother of a vengeance-minded parolee and drug addict, she’s addled, coughing, and gnarly in the way that old white women living in trailers in the movies tend to be. But Maggie is also possessed of a strange grace. Her single scene in First Snow reveals her canny understanding of exactly what went wrong for her son, Vincent (Shea Whigham), as well as what’s about to go wrong for her visitor, the odiously named Jimmy Starks (Guy Pearce).
Vincent’s recent parole has rattled Jimmy. Currently a successful, New Mexico-based flooring salesman, Jimmy tells himself that Vincent’s incarceration was his own fault, that his erstwhile friend made wrong choices when they were being interrogated by police following a botched thievery. The fact that Jimmy’s story at the time incriminated Vincent doesn’t bother him so much: he did what he needed to do. Maggie sees it differently. Working a rum and Coke in the middle of the day, she’s not bitter, exactly, but hardly happy about Vincent’s ongoing misery: he’s a drug addict and out of work. “You should have looked out for him,” she sighs. When Jimmy protests by generalizing, “We were young and stupid,” she stops him short: “You weren’t stupid, Jimmy.”
Thus accused, Jimmy spends most of First Snow trying to avoid what appears to be his fate. His first voiceover insinuates his thinking: as the camera looks through a windshield at pavement ahead, he intones, “This road you’re on, you put yourself on this road, on this exact night.” From this moment, the film cuts back in time, to the approximate point when he became aware of that fate. His car busted after a minor wreck, he’s stuck at a deserty pit stop. He makes a brief, habitual pitch to the bartender (his latest sales scheme concerns classic Wurlitzer 1015 jukeboxes), then wanders outside.
Here he finds Vacaro (J.K. Simmons), a psychic who offers readings out of his Airstreamer. Surrounded by carved wooden animals, assorted bones and ominous trinkets, Vacaro offers a reading for cash money. You know how this goes: he closes his eyes, touches Jimmy’s hand, and falls into some kind of trance. Then he begins to shake, pulling back with a look of horror on his face. Declaring the session over, he gives Jimmy back his money and insists that he leave. His is an ugly fate, Vacaro suggests, and he wants nothing to do with it.
All this psychic commotion earns Jimmy’s faux tough-guy’s scorn, until he sees that some of the seer’s throwaway comments turn true (the Timberwolves win a game they’re not supposed to, a business deal comes through). What if, as Vacaro says, Jimmy’s “noisy mind, cluttered with fears,” has provided a vision of his future? What if Jimmy’s smarmy intelligence, observed so shrewdly by Maggie, has set him on a course from which there’s no return? And what if Mark Fergus’ movie is stuck on another sort of road, headed for the end you already know?
This last is a problem, as First Snow pretty much follows the formula set in motion by Vacaro’s spooky drama. Scene for scene, however, Pearce’s performance opens up its mostly regular ruminations on fate and free will. While it’s not surprising that Jimmy succumbs to his fears — he’s a weaselly, self-absorbed anti-hero, ever angling for his best deal, distrustful and cynical — his descent into self is weirdly mesmerizing. In this, he’s helped by an assembly of acquaintances he never quite trusts. Of course, Jimmy can’t reveal his fears to his salesman partner Ed (the excellent William Fichtner), commit to his long-suffering girlfriend Deirdre (Piper Perabo) or make amends with Andy (Rick Gonzalez), an eager young associate he fires at the behest of their oily boss (Luce Rains). The film adopts his increasingly limited perspective: he sees Andy’s wife in the doorway, chastising him in Spanish; he sees Deirdre walk away. But he can’t imagine what happens next.
Guy Pearce and William Fichtner
Jimmy’s lack of imagination leads him to a series of dead ends along his road, none more nuanced than his visit to a storefront tarot card reader (Gurudarshan). Spotting her neon sign while he and Deirdre stroll along a sidewalk one evening, he sends his girl on an ice cream run, embarrassed to reveal his obsession with what he’s come to understand as his fate. Inside, he begs the medium for answers: “Is fate something that can be changed?” She looks into his eyes, her response heavily “gypsy”-accented. Life is a tapestry with patterns, she says, “some woven tightly, others looser.” When her young child unexpectedly enters the room, decorated with colorful scarves and low lighting, the woman’s performance pauses, her accent lost.
Like many scenes in First Snow, this one doesn’t move plot so much as it exposes Jimmy. His face falls, just for an instant, as he sees that, like Vacaro, like himself, the medium is selling something. Understanding suddenly that relationship — in which he’s the buyer and the believer, or at least, the buyer who wants to believe — Jimmy is at once undone and renewed. Even though the plot around him turns increasingly too knotty and fantastic to believe, his efforts to sort it out are increasingly riveting. As much as he tries to control what’s happening — threatening friends, breaking into Vincent’s trailer, even conferring with a cop — Jimmy is lost.
When he visits Maggie once more, she’s resolutely uninterested in his dilemma. Instead, she focuses on what’s important, on her son. When Jimmy suggests, in his ferrety, deceptive way, that he fears Vincent is “thinking about doing something stupid,” she’s not so much alarmed as she is resigned. Her regret is her own, having missed a phone call from Vincent. “I wish I’d been awake when he left the message that said he loved me,” she sighs. It’s a desire so delicate and sad that Jimmy can’t fathom it