SXSW Film Review: ‘Predestination’

A breakout performance by Sarah Snook distinguishes this entrancingly strange science-fiction drama.

Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor.

An entrancingly strange time-travel saga that suggests a Philip K. Dick yarn by way of Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex,” or perhaps a feature-length mash-up of “Looper” and “Cloud Atlas,” “Predestination” succeeds in teasing the brain and touching the heart even when its twists and turns keep multiplying well past the point of narrative sustainability. Playfully and portentously examining themes of destiny, mutability and identity through the story of two strangers whose lives turn out to be intricately linked, sibling filmmakers Peter and Michael Spierig offer a skillful and atmospheric adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s 1960 short story ” — All You Zombies — ,” and if it’s better in the intimate early stages than in the more grandiose later passages, all in all it’s the sort of boldly illogical head trip that gives preposterousness a good name. Graced by an extraordinary breakout performance from Aussie newcomer Sarah Snook, “Predestination” is likely fated for a minor arthouse reception at best, but there will be plenty of cultists willing to indulge its heady and rarefied approach.

A taut but richly expansive fantasia on some of the knottier paradoxes of time travel, Heinlein’s 13-page yarn naturally lends itself to the sort of visual elaboration it receives here. In perhaps their most significant alteration, the Spierig Brothers have fleshed out the role of the story’s narrator, a Temporal Agent tasked with bending the laws of time in order to ensure the success of his cryptic mission — and, it eventually becomes clear, his own continued survival. When we first meet this man, hidden beneath a trenchcoat and fedora, he’s trying to disarm the latest explosive rigged by the oddly named “Fizzle” Bomber, an elusive terrorist at work in 1970s New York. But it literally blows up in his face, requiring a massive feat of reconstructive surgery that leaves him with the handsome visage of Ethan Hawke — the first but not the last of the story’s many crucial transformations.

Having kicked off with a nod to classic noir and crime fiction, the story settles into a nicely mellow, almost Bukowskian two-hander vein. Now working as a bartender, Hawke’s agent strikes up a conversation with a tough-talking, androgynous-looking male patron (Snook) who identifies himself as “the Unmarried Mother,” the byline he uses when writing popular “confessional” stories for magazines. As the agent notes, the writer’s work displays a remarkable insight into the female mind, prompting the Unmarried Mother to describe how he came to acquire such intuition, in what he promises will be “the best story you ever heard.” While that might be going a bit far, the illustrated life history that follows is as engrossing as it is peculiar, as the Unmarried Mother flashes back to the moment of his birth — or her birth, rather, as he begins life as an infant girl named Jane, left on the doorstep of a Cleveland orphanage in 1945.

Acutely aware of something unmistakably different between herself and her peers, young Jane is picked on relentlessly by her peers but fights back with a vengeance, developing unusual physical toughness, excelling in her studies (particularly science and math), and retaining her virginity — all of which make her a surprisingly ideal candidate for Space Corp., a ’60s-era government program designed to put women in outer space, although its true purpose, to provide comfort women as a service for male astronauts, is alluded to more vaguely here than in Heinlein’s story. In another key deviation from the source material, it’s here that the filmmakers introduce the character of Mr. Robertson (Noah Taylor), an enigmatic figure, at once kind and unnervingly hard to read, who will become a guiding influence in Jane’s life.

There is much more: Jane’s seduction and abandonment by a young man (his face pointedly hidden from view) and her unexpected pregnancy, which leads to a medical discovery that would seem to explain a great deal about her past: She is, in fact, an intersex being, born with male and female internal reproductive capacities, and complications stemming from her birth will require her to transition fully to a 100% male identity. Yet this development turns out to be one of many surprises in store, as the Temporal Agent offers the Unmarried Mother the opportunity to go back in time and alter his/her past, at which point “Predestination,” jumping back as early as 1945 and as late as 1993, takes on the narrative circularity of its defining metaphor: a snake biting its own tail.

Deciphering who’s who, and who did what to whom, will be easy enough for attentive viewers, particularly those watching at home who, rather than throwing up their hands in frustration, will be inclined to hit the rewind button. Figuring out what it all means, or is trying to mean — a meditation on the elasticity of human identity? An extreme argument for the power of self-reliance in a repressive society? A statement about the unalterable nature of past, present and future? — will require somewhat lengthier discussion. On the basis of a single viewing, it’s fair to say that the pleasure lies more in the buildup, with its careful establishment of ground rules and subtly immersive storytelling, than in the climactic detonation of ever bigger and bigger revelations. Not least among the film’s paradoxes is that in reaching for some grand summation, “Predestination” feels somewhat diminished.

Faced with the challenge of such out-there material, the Spierig Brothers and their talented crew have set about realizing it with a meticulous level of craft that, in and of itself, compels a certain suspension of disbelief: From costume designer Wendy Cork’s period-specific creations and production designer Matthew Putland’s versatile array of sets to the subtle differences in color and lighting favored by d.p. Ben Nott, nearly every aspect of this decades-spanning saga has its own distinct feel even as the whole retains a strong sense of artistic unity. Particular visual standouts include the 1960s Space Corp. training facility, with its cool whites and blues, its retro-futuristic stylings and cloche hats, as well as the 1970s bar, a warmly lit vision that provides a strong visual and dramatic anchor for the otherwise mercurial proceedings. Peter Spierig’s score adds lovely notes of churning melancholy throughout.

In the end, though, whatever success “Predestination” achieves rests almost entirely on the shoulders of its central performer. Over the years, Hawke (who also starred in the Spierig Brothers’ “Daybreakers”) has become the sort of actor whose adventurous choice of material inspires confidence more often than not, and he makes an ideal guide to the mysteries on offer here. But he’s playing the foil this time, and it’s Snook, an actress in her 20s with an ethereal resemblance to Jodie Foster, who stays with you. The exceptional work of special makeup effects designer Steve Boyle aside, the lingering resonance of Snook’s performance transcends mere gender-bender gimmickry; whether she’s speaking in a man’s gruff lower register or gazing, transfixed, at the first boy who’s ever shown her any attention, it’s her poignant embodiment of the desire for acceptance and self-fulfillment that lends this singularly weird experience a universal dimension.

SXSW Film Review: 'Predestination'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Headliners), March 8, 2014. Running time: 97 MIN.

Production: (Australia) A Screen Australia presentation in association with Screen Queensland of a Blacklab Entertainment/Wolfhound Pictures production. (International sales: Arclight Films, Beverly Hills/Sydney.) Produced by Paddy McDonald, Tim McGahan, Peter Spierig, Michael Spierig. Executive producers, Michael Burton, Gary Hamilton, Matt Kennedy, James M. Vernon.

Crew: Directed, written by the Spierig Brothers, based on the short story " — All You Zombies — " by Robert A. Heinlein. Camera (Technicolor, widescreen), Ben Nott; editor, Matt Villa; music, Peter Spierig; production designer, Matthew Putland; art director, Janie Parker; set decorator, Vanessa Cerne; set designer, James Parker; costume designer, Wendy Cork; sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat/SDDS), Gretchen Thornburn; sound designer/supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Chris Goodes; special makeup effects designer, Steve Boyle; special effects supervisor, Brian Pearce; visual effects supervisors, Rangi Sutton, Jeff Gaunt; visual effects producer, Flavia Riley; visual effects, the Spierig Brothers, Cutting Edge; stunt coordinator, Mitch Dean; fight choreographer, Marky Lee Campbell; assistant director, Jamie Leslie; casting, Maura Fay Casting, Leigh Pickford.

With: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor.

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