Best known for his intense portrayal of a traumatized amnesiac in "Memento," Guy Pearce embarks on another head trip in the psychological drama "First Snow." But while his character in Christopher Nolan's scrambled film noir suffered the frustrations of a blank-slate mind, the predicament here is just the opposite: too much information.
Sporting bad suits, a greasy mane and a clutch of quirky character traits, Pearce plays Jimmy Starks, a fast-talking traveling salesman who sells flooring and Wurlitzer jukeboxes. His troubles begin when his car breaks down in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Looking to kill time, he wanders into the trailer of a grizzled fortune teller (J.K. Simmons), whom he initially pegs as a fellow huckster. After spouting a few innocuous predictions, the soothsayer comes upon a vision so distressing that he's stricken by a seizure and offers Jimmy a refund.
Once those seemingly tossed-off prophecies start to come true, our distressed hero returns to the desert for a second blast of clairvoyance and gets a more conclusive forecast. His days are numbered. In fact, he will die when the first snow falls.
Despite the nonsensical ambiguity of this assertion (the first snow where? And what happens if he heads for the tropics?), Jimmy can't help obsessing over it. His escalating paranoia alienates his live-in girlfriend (Piper Perabo, barely present in a nonexistent role). His best friend at work (William Fichtner, persuasively sleazy as always) looks on with concern and bemusement.
Portents of doom proliferate, from mysterious crank calls to a bullet-riddled target sheet that arrives in the mail. Jimmy learns that a childhood friend and former business partner is just out of jail, perhaps bent on revenge. Meanwhile, weather reports warn of an impending cold front....
More gaunt and feral than ever, Pearce skillfully portrays Jimmy's descent into sweaty-palmed madness. But the real star of the film is Eric Edwards' widescreen cinematography, which evokes the perverse oppressiveness of the vast Southwestern skies.
First-time feature director Mark Fergus keeps things on a low boil, and despite the metaphysical trappings of the premise, the movie remains doggedly earthbound. (Fergus and his writing partner Hawk Ostby were two of the five credited -- and Oscar-nominated -- screenwriters on Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men.")
The central scenario of a man haunted by his own death is potent, even profound. It's at the heart of one of the greatest short films of all time, Chris Marker's "La Jetee," the basis for Terry Gilliam's "12 Monkeys." But "First Snow," even as it ponders big questions of fate and free will, seldom reaches for cosmic grandeur or philosophical depth. Even when the weather finally takes its inevitable ominous turn, Jimmy's quandary seems oddly trivial. The doomed hero never registers as more than a paranoid narcissist.
MPAA rating: R for language, some violence and sexuality. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (323) 848-3500; Landmark's NuWilshire, 1314 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 281-8223.