As soon as the credits rolled on “Predestination,” I wanted to watch it again.
It was even more of a mind-dance the second time around.
More than a half-century after the publication of the great Robert A. Heinlein’s trippy, twisted and brilliant 13-page short story “All You Zombies,” the Spierig Brothers have pulled off a nifty feat by expanding it into a meticulously crafted, sparse but beautifully photographed full-length feature film with strong work from a reliable veteran and a breakout performance from an actor you might not have heard of before.
Ethan Hawke, who deserves first-ballot entry into the Mustachioed Actors Hall of Fame, gives a strong, nuanced, film-noir-nod performance as the Barkeep (as he’s billed in the credits), a “temporal agent” who can journey through time to prevent crimes before they happen. (There are limits to how far he can travel, which might explain why he never bumps into the agents from “Minority Report.”)
In the New York City of the 1970s, the Barkeep is on the hunt for the terrorist known as the Fizzle Bomber when there’s an explosion and he’s burnt beyond recognition. Some seven years later, he’s now tending bar in a seedy joint, where he strikes up a conversation with an androgynous-looking man named John (Sarah Snook). After a bit of banter where we wonder if the Barkeep knows John or John knows the Barkeep or they’re two strangers both hiding agendas, John tells the Barkeep he has a backstory that will blow his mind.
I want to tread lightly here so as to keep most of the twists and revelations tucked away, but let’s just say John used to be known as Jane, and Jane/John has been on one long strange trip. When John was a Jane, she was recruited by Space Corp., a secret government program to put women in outer space for reasons other than what the women were led to believe when they signed up.
When John finishes his story, the Barkeep is indeed blown away — but then he offers John the opportunity to go back and literally change his destiny.
“Predestination” yanks us back and forth through the decades, going back as early as 1945 and spending a lot of time in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s, with a brief stop in the 1990s. Along the way, we’re told a few rules of time travel (there are always a few rules of time travel), including the familiar caveat that one must not step outside the mission at hand or interact with too many people at any given point on the timeline. Just because you’ve landed in the spring of 1963 doesn’t mean you can warn JFK not to go to Dallas that November, and even if you did who would believe you?
The deeper we go, the more insane the story gets, leading to one of the more bizarre endings in recent movie history. (Even if you see it coming, it doesn’t make it any less weird.) Working on a budget of just $7 million, the Spierig brothers and their team have created a visually arresting film with cool, stark, bleak sets; great use of color to indicate different time periods, and special effects that do the trick even though the whole film was made for the cost of probably a minute’s worth of a big-budget superhero movie.
Hawke gives one of his best performances, leaving us guessing throughout as to the true motivation of the Barkeep and whether he’s a good guy or maybe not.
And then there’s Sarah Snook, an Australian actress in her mid-20s who is stunningly good in a role that requires her to play a dashing young man, a world-weary man of about 40, a homely girl, a beautiful girl and let’s leave it at that. She bears a slight resemblance to a young Jodie Foster, and she is utterly natural and believable on screen, even when her character’s situation is anything but natural or conventionally believable. In a scene where Jane receives some shocking news, Snook is heartbreakingly effective.
It’s the first great performance of the very young movie year.
Vertical Entertainment presents a film written and directed by the Spierig Brothers, based on the short story “All You Zombies” by Robert A. Heinlein. Running time: 97 minutes. Rated R (for violence and some sexuality, nudity and language). Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre and on demand.