In the great works of Western lit, fate often weaves an intricate tapestry. Sometimes, though, it just enters at the last minute and pulls a single thread. That’s what happens at the end of First Snow, which packs a whole mess of moodiness around a scrawny tale. The directorial debut of Mark Fergus, who collaborated on the script with fellow Children of Men co-writer Hawk Ostby, effectively ponders the power of suggestion, but it’s marred by a perfunctory outcome. The story is set in New Mexico, but its realm is actually Pearceland-that backwoods region where gaunt anti-star Guy Pearce hides from the mainstream roles he could surely get. The Memento lead plays traveling hustler Jimmy Starks, who peddles flooring and hopes to break into selling vintage jukeboxes. He’s a loner; his girlfriend, Deirdre (Piper Perabo), hardly figures in the story save as an emblem of the domesticated lifestyle Starks will never have. The story opens and closes on the road, and the plot kicks in when Starks pulls over with smoke pouring from his car. While waiting for repairs, he pays a gruff, trailer-dwelling psychic (J. K. Simmons) $10 for a glimpse of his future. Although the seer recoils from Starks’ destiny as if electrocuted, the salesman doesn’t take the fortune seriously. But when two minor predictions come true, Starks returns for the full forecast. The oracle reluctantly tells Starks that he’ll die soon, probably not long after the first snow. This unexpected warning acquires further urgency when Starks begins to feel he’s being stalked and learns that an old buddy he betrayed has just been released from prison. (The script also alludes to several other potential routes to the morgue.) Handsome and creepy at the same time, Pearce’s character is a Nick Cave murder ballad come to life, and Fergus places him in ominous compositions that range from partial shadow to almost complete darkness. Too bad that the carefully constructed tone dissipates as the threat becomes more specific, and that the final development is less a payoff than a cop-out.

More from WCP