First Winter posits what may be the most horrifying apocalyptic scenario imaginable: being trapped in a remote snowbound farmhouse with a group of shaggy yoga hippies. Whether Judgment Day has actually arrived is left severely vague by Benjamin Dickinson’s film; the only solid clues are some billowing smoke on the horizon and a caravan of friends not returning to the house with the crew’s car.
Ultimately, it’s a question that’s beside the point, since the flimsy traces of action that pass for a plot in this interminable indie revolve around the stranded characters’ ability to subsist with dwindling food supplies and firewood while also dealing with mounting interpersonal tensions. The latter are mainly generated by de facto leader Paul (Paul Manza), a laidback egocentric guru with a broom-like beard and matching mustache who spends his days teaching yoga to his disciples and his nights convincing his girlfriend-of-the-moment, Jen (Jennifer Kim), to share their bed with Sam (Samantha Jacober). Jen does, because everyone in the house is a grating go-with-the-flow type, save for Matt (Matthew Chastain), who mainly enjoys snorting heroin by himself in his room and glaring at Paul with both jealousy (since Matt also likes Sam) and contempt for the man’s pompous shaman routine.
In other words, Matt is the audience’s surrogate throughout First Winter, which—other than capturing a mood of wannabe-free-spirit narcissism and one-with-nature languorousness—is successful only at alienating. Shaky handheld camerawork results in unpleasant proximity with the uniformly blank, disagreeable characters, to the point that one feels an actual urge to shove at the screen to create greater physical separation. Dickinson’s cinematographic unsteadiness slowly gives way to more visual stasis, but endless close-ups of characters’ quiet faces, bodies in deliberate motion, and food preparation and consumption fail to create anything approaching empathetic engagement with Paul and company’s increasingly dire circumstances and testy romantic entanglements.
Around the midway point, one of the film’s ciphers dies due to another’s arrogant negligence, and then soon afterward, a loaded rifle enters into the dramatic equation, portending more possible fatalities for these insufferable nobodies. Alas, Dickinson’s story isn’t interested in devolving into genuine you-reap-what-you-sow chaos; its interests are mainly relegated to wallowing in the frigid-starvation-suffering of its protagonists and then, for no justifiable reason, bestowing on them transcendence—a state of being diametrically opposed to the experience of actually enduring this leaden, torturous exercise in hippie survivalist chic.