VOD film review: Predestination
James R | On 19, Feb 2015
Directors: The Spierig Brothers
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook
“Anyone who tells you they know what Predestination is about is lying,” says Ethan Hawke of his latest film. Halfway through, you gasp at just how right – or wrong – he might be.
The sci-fi, based on a short story that was reportedly written in a day, is an epic of tiny proportions. It begins with a man walking into a bar and, like a twisted joke, plays with that scenario until your head is spinning. What’s remarkable, though, is that it does so with a cast of barely two people.
An opening sequence involving a bomb and a shootout immediately grabs your attention, but the script by The Spierig Brothers is smart enough to realise it doesn’t need action to excite: where other movies might aim big, they think small, putting away the guns and instead popping down the pub for a wee chat.
That conversation stretches out for almost 30 minutes, an exposition-heavy flashback narrated by the Barkeep’s guest, the Unmarried Mother. If a thriller with half its runtime made up of talking might sound dull, that’s before the mysterious character opens their mouth. Sarah Snook is a revelation as the Mother, recounting a story that hops between genders as much as it does timeframes. With the charisma of Leonardo DiCaprio and the authority of David Bowie, she reveals the peculiar circumstances of her birth and the coming-of-age that followed.
Snook’s facial expressions alone enough to tug at your heartstrings, but The Spierig Brothers make sure you’re engaged visually as well as emotionally. Michael and Peter displayed a real knack for world-building on a budget in trashy vampire flick Daybreakers, which also starred Hawke. Their talent is no less impressive here, as the directors build a large universe out of minute moments; even though the film is mostly set indoors, each period we visit feels distinct and fully formed, giving this intimate narrative the scale of something you’d associate with those other legendary sci-if siblings, the Wachowskis.
It’s a treat to see Ethan remain dedicated to such indie projects and the actor clearly relishes the mind-bending complexities of his character, a terrorist-tracking Temporal Agent, who soon finds that the chronological back-and-forth of his job takes its toll. As he nears retirement, his enigmatic boss (a perfectly cast Noah Taylor) tasks him with preparing his younger protege for the future, as well as thwarting the “Fizzle Bomber” once and for all.
From facial surgery to baby kidnapping, our odd pair are soon surrounded by inevitable impossibilities, walking in on themselves repeatedly while choosing whether to interact. All the while, they wear noir-tinged hats and carry time machines shaped like gangsters’ violin cases, which find “a subtle place” for them to appear and “avoid any material collisions” – a trick that, you suspect, is as much down to convenience as technology.
“How did you know the clothes would be there?” asks Snook, after Hawke persuades her character to travel back with him into an empty warehouse. “It doesn’t matter,” he replies. “Just try to blend in.” That go-with-it attitude, so prevalent in B-movies, though, conceals a superbly conceived idea: some paradoxes are more predictable than others, but they are all intricately plotted, always folding inwards, not expanding outwards. It’s an ambitious genre piece that emerges as a complete character study rather than a cheap knock-off of other time travel tales. Even you don’t follow the ins and outs of the piece on first viewing, though, Snook’s star-making turn ensures you’ll stay gripped, while Hawke generously steps aside to let the two-hander almost turn into a one-person show.
Proof that you can do a lot with a little, the result is a fantastic, fascinating exploration of destiny and deciding who you are. But don’t take our word for it: see it for yourself. After all, we’re probably lying.