The high desert of New Mexico resembles a Georgia O'Keeffe landscape with the color leached out. "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes," locals joke about the sudden hot and cold fronts that blow through, frequently defoliating plant and human life.

This is the unpredictable setting for First Snow, a haunting neo-noir about a man told by a palmist that his karma is about to run over his dogma.

The film marks the feature debut of Mark Fergus, who collaborated on its twisty script with his Children of Men writing partner, Hawk Ostby.

The chronicle of a death foretold is as lean as leading man Guy Pearce. With his sunken cheeks, lank locks, and air of belated penitence, Pearce seems to be auditioning for the role of El Greco saint.

But in fact, Jimmy Starks (Pearce) is anything but. A hard-drinking, hard-driving traveling salesman, he is an unapologetic user of others. At first, he dismisses the fortune-teller's predictions. But one by one as the seer's prophecies come true, Jimmy wonders, has a career of double-dealing invited this bitter fate?

Pearce (who increasingly looks like Kevin Bacon's handsomer, more dissolute, sibling) has the seedy magnetism of a latter-day Robert Mitchum. His Jimmy is unlikeable, but relatable, and carries the weight of this smartly updated version of Somerset Maugham's Appointment in Samarra as though in the deep creases of his forehead.

"Fate is not an eagle, it creeps like a rat," said Elizabeth Bowen, a sentiment that Fergus unsentimentally shares in his ground-level exploration of kismet.

Caught in fate's twist, Jimmy is pricked by conscience, and this rat resolves to remake himself into a man. He makes attempts to put things right with those he has wronged. These include his girlfriend (the underutilized Piper Perabo), his colleague (Rick Gonzalez), and a sinister former partner in crime (Shea Whigham).

Will Jimmy's moral turnaround turn his fate around? Or is fate, like a sleeping dog, a creature that if disturbed will bite back?

The fascination of Fergus' superb thriller is that either outcome seems possible.

First Snow *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Mark Fergus, written by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, photography by Eric Alan Edwards, music by Cliff Martinez, distributed by Yari Film Group.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 mins.

Jimmy Starks. . . Guy Pearce

Deirdre. . . Piper Perabo

Maggie. . . Jackie Burroughs

Vacaro. . . J.K. Simmons

Parent's guide: R (sex, profanity, violence)

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse,

Ritz Sixteen/NJ.EndText

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey
at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl.