First Snow

“This road you’re on, you put yourself on this road.” It’s a pretty obvious metaphor, considering the speaker is driving a car when he says it, but it works as a summary of the central theme of “First Snow.” Here’s a film that takes a silly premise — a fortune teller predicts imminent doom! — and spins it into a thoughtful, intelligent story about fate vs. free will. Call it the thinking man’s “Final Destination.”

The narrator, the man who put himself on the road he’s on, is Jimmy (Guy Pearce), a less-than-honest Albuquerque salesman who’s stuck selling flooring right now but has a scheme to get rich selling old Wurlitzer jukeboxes to bars and restaurants. His car broken down somewhere in the high desert, he tries to earn a mechanic’s sympathy by telling him he has a pregnant wife waiting for him at home. The mechanic glances down at Jimmy’s left hand: no wedding ring. This guy isn’t married.

You get the feeling a lot of people see through Jimmy as easily as the mechanic does.

While waiting for his car to be repaired in this desolate little town, he wanders across the road to where a grizzled fellow named Vacaro (J.K. Simmons, always a sure bet) does psychic readings out of his motor home. Jimmy pays him a few bucks, eager for a laugh. Vacaro reads his palm, makes a couple of minor predictions, then recoils at something he’s foreseen. He won’t say what. He cuts the session short and dismisses Jimmy.

Soon back home in Albuquerque, Jimmy resumes his flat, passionless life. He has a girlfriend, Deirdre (Piper Perabo), whom he won’t commit to. A co-worker and protege (Rick Gonzalez) has been fired for padding his expense accounts the way Jimmy taught him, and Jimmy has distanced himself from all responsibility

Two events shake Jimmy out of his malaise. He learns his childhood friend Vincent (Shea Whigham) is out of prison and probably seeking to settle an old score with him. (It seems that co-worker wasn’t the first person Jimmy had hung out to dry.) He also learns, after an intense return trip to Vacaro the psychic, what his future holds: nothing. Vacaro says he doesn’t know how or when, exactly, but Jimmy’s going to die. “You’re safe until the first snow” is the only detail he can provide.

Deirdre, who’s generally fed up with Jimmy’s behavior, doesn’t put much stock in the psychic, and Jimmy’s friend Ed (William Fichtner) thinks he’s crazy, but Jimmy is convinced. The old man’s other little prophecies came true, so why not this one? And if he is going to die, will it be at the hand of Vincent, the lifelong chum who went to prison for him?

The script is by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, two of the men responsible for the “Children of Men” adaptation last year; Fergus also directed “First Snow,” his debut in that capacity. Like “Children of Men,” this film takes a science-fictiony concept seriously, considering it in real-world rather than fantasy terms. Sure, predicting the future is ridiculous. But what if someone could do it? How would it affect you? What would you do differently? How would your personal relationships be impacted? The obscure, impossible specifics of the story feel universal.

Guy Pearce is compelling as the distasteful protagonist, though he might have ratcheted up the likability factor a little; our sympathy for a scoundrel like Jimmy can only go so far. Still, Pearce is in familiar territory. The man he played in “Memento” was also haunted, doomed to a particular fate, and not necessarily a good guy.

Though the film’s slow, contemplative pace suits its introspective themes, one wonders if it couldn’t have either moved a little faster or paid off a little better in the end. The story is satisfying intellectually more than emotionally — but satisfying nonetheless, and thought-provoking too.

B (1 hr., 41 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, brief strong sexuality, brief strong violence.)