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Flakes of fate What lies ahead? Only the psychic seems to know

The beat-up sign next to the trailer reads "Fortunes Told." A funny place for a fortune teller, this desert highway stop, but it fits in an odd way.

The well-dressed man waiting for his car to be fixed takes a walk over. He has time to kill and is looking for a diversion. Tell me my fortune. Tell me if my car will be fixed, he smirks.

It will, he's told, and we all laugh at this roadside psychic. He sees more: You'll get a windfall from Dallas, oh, and don't bet that basketball game, because the injured star will return. Then the psychic begins to shake violently, not a good sign when he's looking at your future. The reading is done, he says.

We understand what the psychic saw, but Jimmy Starks (eloquently underplayed by Guy Pearce) is so self-centered that it doesn't phase him. He wants more entertainment for his money. The psychic, a rugged cowboy type played by the wonderful J.K. Simmons, gives him his money back. Go home. Just go home.

Jimmy doesn't know it, but he has just entered the "Twilight Zone" via Alfred Hitchcock in "First Snow," a metaphysical thriller about a man trying to outsmart fate.

It will only be a matter of time before the predictions start to come true and a "health scare" has Jimmy running back to the psychic begging to be told what he really saw.

Death is coming for Jimmy Starks. The psychic doesn't know how, only that Jimmy is safe until the first snow. He advises him to get his things in order, but Jimmy, a successful salesman, has spent a lifetime talking his way out of tough situations and wants to take fate head on.

If he can figure out who or what will be responsible for his death, Jimmy thinks he can stop it. But in worrying about death, life comes at him full force. With senses heightened, he becomes acutely aware -- and threatened by -- everything around him. Will it be his health? (He stops smoking.) Will it be the young co-worker he helped cheat on his expense reports and then fired? Or is it his best friend from childhood, just released from prison? Maybe it has something to do with the frequent telephone hang-ups. Or it could just be the guy walking across the street.

Jimmy unravels before our eyes both physically and psychologically as he panics, runs and hides from an invisible threat he doesn't even know is real. Like he did in "Memento," Pearce carries the film as a haunted character grappling with something bigger than himself that may not have any clear answers.

Balancing the "unknown" factor are the very real physical threats Jimmy faces in the script, co-written by first-time director Mark Fergus and Hawk Otsby. The film may be deliberately paced to the point of nearly stopping dead at times, but it kept me on the edge of my seat.

In the same way the first snowfall can be predicted, but we never know for sure until the flakes begin to fall, so does this story slowly reveal itself on the audience. In fact, its ending is so subtle, you may miss it if you aren't paying attention.

You won't have any problem spotting Buffalo native William Fitchner, however, as Jimmy's amiable co-worker whose one-liners defuse tense situations.

e-mail: truberto@buffnews.com

***

FIRST SNOW

3 stars (Out of 4)STARRING: Guy Pearce, Piper Perabo, J.K. Simmons and William Fichtner

DIRECTOR: Mark Fergus

RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes

RATING: R for language, some violence and sexuality

THE LOWDOWN: A cocky salesman begins to unravel after a prediction that he won't live once the first snow falls.

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