PREDESTINATION. Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor. Directed by The Spierig Brothers. 97 minutes.Rated MA15+ (Strong sex scene and violence).
This fiercely intelligent and surprisingly moving time travel thriller is a film which would not bear spoilers well – as such, this review will proceed with an apology for the intentionally vague and sparse description. However, the punchline is that this is an Australian film which deserves to be seen by moviegoers who want to be challenged and rewarded in turn.
Ethan Hawke plays a Temporal Agent tasked with moving through time to prevent future crime. His toughest case, the ‘one that got away’ if you like, is the Fizzle Bomber, responsible for the deaths of thousands over several years. We follow him to a bar in 1975 New York, where he strikes up a conversation with androgynous male patron John (Sarah Snook). As John’s story plays out, it becomes increasingly strange, until it is clear that appearances and expectations can be deceiving…
The German-born but Australian-raised Spierig Brothers adapted their script from Robert A. Heinlein’s classic science-fiction story, ‘All You Zombies’. Anyone familiar with the tale will appreciate the difficulty of adapting its multiple (and multiplying) twists for the big screen, but the twins have done a remarkable job. Fleshing out the role of the protagonist and narrator (Hawke) to include a more substantial backstory and thus imbuing the film with higher stakes, they have crafted a rich script which is never afraid to leave the audience to do some mental work to piece it all together. Though the source material inevitably means the narrative will pull viewers’ logic to extremes, their writing is sharp, efficient and poignant. As directors, the Spierig Brothers have matured since the workmanlike yet unsubtle vampire flick ‘Daybreakers’ in 2009. Here, they are happy to leave things unspoken, and the performances and work behind the camera that they have drawn out from their cast and crew are noteworthy across the board.
Production designer Matthew Putland is the pick of the bunch here. His vision of the 1970s is groovy and delirious, and sits juxtaposed with his clean, disinfected vision of the ‘futuristic’ time from which they travel back. Working with a budget which wouldn’t compare to any modern blockbuster, he, along with Wendy Cork’s costumes and Steven Boyle’s wonderful special effects makeup, has elevated the finished product to a level of impressive polish. Peter Spierig also composed the score for the picture, and it pulses along nicely without drawing attention to itself. Finally, the leaps between the periods are pieced together smoothly by editor Matt Villa, and his precise crafting of the pace allows each twist and turn to take full effect.
In front of the camera, Ethan Hawke leads the film strongly. His grasp on the depth of the story is apparent, and he conveys his characters hidden facets skilfully. Both intelligent and desperate, Hawke’s mentoring of Sarah Snook’s character is moving work. Snook delivers scene-stealing work here as the ambiguously gendered John. Heartbreaking and suitably restrained when required, her portrayal of a troubled mind grappling with notions of free will and predestination is striking, and will likely bring her to the attention of many directors following the film’s wider release.
Hawke’s character states that ‘it’s never too late to be who you might have been’. In their third feature, it appears that the Spierig Brothers have unleashed their potential on a project befitting their considerable talent. Ambitious sci-fi often aims higher than it can conceivably reach, however ‘Predestination’ pins its mind-bending story with vast emotion and thrills.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out August 28.