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Unmemorable ‘First Snow’ runs in circles

Guy Pearce puts his all into this con-man role, but story is just too thin. By John Hartl

There’s enough story material in writer-director Mark Fergus’ “First Snow” for an episode of “The Twilight Zone” or “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Unfortunately, the movie runs much longer.

While it’s stylishly done, and it may manage to keep you intrigued for its first half hour, eventually it can’t help running in circles. Even the twist ending seems repetitious when it arrives. You’re given far too much time to ponder where the central character is headed.

Compensating somewhat is the cast. The actors are so strong and carefully chosen that you keep expecting them to provide new shadings with each scene. Unfortunately, what you see is mostly what you get; the characters they’re playing rarely allow for shadings, new or old.

Fresh from impersonating Andy Warhol in “Factory Girl,” Australian native Guy Pearce plays Jimmy Starks, a high-pressure salesman who demonstrates his versatility the moment he hands his business card to a customer. The card may say he’s in “flooring,” but he’s selling restored jukeboxes at the moment. And if you indicate interest in anything else, he’ll probably be happy to find that too for a fee.

Pearce pulls out all the stops to play this impatient hustler, who turns out to be tough on best friends as well as women. A fellow salesman, Ed (William Fichtner), wants to be his closest pal, but so did an enigmatic ex-convict, Vince (Shea Whigham), who hasn’t seen Jimmy in years.

Jimmy’s current main squeeze is Deirdre (Piper Perabo), but his girlfriends appear to be almost interchangeable. He has even less time for Vince’s dying mother (Jackie Burroughs) and a rather desperate underling (Rick Gonzalez).

His outlook begins to change when his car breaks down at a New Mexico trailer town, where he consults a fortuneteller (J.K. Simmons) who charges $10 and reluctantly tells Jimmy he doesn’t have much time to live. Indeed, he’ll die when the “first snow” arrives — and there’s a massive storm front on the way.

Ed dismisses this prophet as a “trailer-park Kreskin,” but Jimmy can’t shake the idea that he’s doomed. He begins to behave as if he’s accepted death, especially after he’s told that he’s been given a gift: the opportunity to put things in order and say his proper goodbyes. When Jimmy announces that he’s found calm in the eye of a hurricane, the narrative seems to turn into a continuous loop.

If you’re expecting Pearce to be dealing with the kinds of mind games he played in “Memento,” however, you’ll be disappointed. There’s a lot less going on here than Fergus and his co-writer, Hawk Ostby (both recently Oscar-nominated for co-writing “Children of Men”), would have you believe. If you’re expecting a fatalistic film-noir classic in the vein of “Detour” or “D.O.A.,” you’re also on the wrong track.

“First Snow” works best as a tale of guilt and obsession, populated by actors who somehow find conviction in the sketchiest of circumstances. The plot may vanish from memory, but not the untidy ambivalence Pearce and Simmons bring to their roles.