Predestination is so close to being just another in a long line of too on-the-nose puzzle box movies. So much of what it does is ape the sort of sub-Christopher Nolan modern-era “betcha can’t guess where this is going to go?” holier-than-thou smug superiority that sacrifices visual nuance and crafty characterization for placing viewers in an icy cold puzzle box that was hired instead of a story. It’s so close to not working that its kind of a miracle it does work at all. It’s even more of a miracle that so much of why it works is in the acting, my much-chagrined “don’t care” department and perennial vote for “most overrated thing about the whole cloth of cinema”. Besides story, of course.
Yet it is a film entirely about performance, and the way in which the whole film itself is a performance. This ends up gifting the film with a certain self-critique that allows it to resist some of the overly-rigid caverns of Christopher Nolan territory. It is not a perfect film, nor even a great one, but the fact that it so astoundingly avoids being a lame retread of an already tepid, soullessly ultra-clever, territory at all makes it kind of a godsend of impressive saving graces in the first place. It’s also a bit unfortunate that a film this well made and acted had to go and step all over itself by being a puzzle-box movie in the first place, but we can’t have everything.
Things begin in a sort-of completely faithful, sort-of wholly jettisoned variation on Robert Heinlein’s All Your Zombies, finding us in the company of a man (Ethan Hawke) who has facial reconstruction surgery after being burned. He then takes up residence as a bartender in a New York City bar for purposes we can only imagine must be obtuse and mysterious, when another man, John (Sarah Snook), walks in. The bartender takes an immediate interest that seems to bridge basic tip-me-and-I’m-bored bartender chat and something more intentional and pointed. John eventually bets the bartender that he can tell him a most interesting story, and staking his claim on a bottle of alcohol in the suspiciously lonely hole in the wall, he begins.
We then meet Jane, who many years before had discovered her incomparable intelligence, commitment, and physical strength would serve her well in her quest to fit in and to quench her indomitable ego and thirst for success. Society, however, dictates other options for her as a female, resigning her to applying as a space courtesan for astronauts who are most lonely in space. She almost makes it, but ends up pregnant, and at this point the doctors discover something more worrying: the pregnancy almost kills her, for her female genitalia are underdeveloped. This, and they are not her only genitalia, and that in order to continue living, she will soon have to make a rather large change in her life.
The large majority of the attention for Predestination has been aimed at Sarah Snook. Her work suggests a decidedly classical performer alive to modern themes, showy and restrained, and tackling the issue of performance rather head-on by asking Snook to transform very basic conceptions of her physical and mental identity over the course of the film in a way that happens to be rather taboo even in 2015. The big crutch of the film is that Snook plays both Jane and John, for she is both Jane and John, tackling issues of gender constructs and the fluidity of gender without ever losing track of the fact that a society that treats genders differently will construct different identities, and thus different performances, for a person who identifies as a female and a male.
It’s an altogether wonderful work of capital A-acting, sufficiently finicky and attuned to the specific artifice of the Jane/John dichotomy while imbuing both halves with a deeply human sense of worry and strength. It is both elastic and rigid, the rare performance that seems both showy and quiet. She takes the sort of physically transformative roles that are so Oscarbaity and so humorless and superficial and finds legitimate investment and soul in what should be a purely surface-level excursion into mimicry.
Of course, part of why the performance works so well is that it is also a surface-level excursion into mimicry. The nature of the role itself, about a female suddenly asked to perform the role of a male in a crippling society, would ask that person for halted, uncomfortable, surface-level mimicry in actual society as well while they tried to figure out the realities of changing their identity. Thus Snook takes the sort of bravura showmanship of surface-level acting and feels it down to the bone, transforming it into a commentary on the nature of the surface levels of gender and how we too know them like a chill on the spine that just won’t leave no matter how much we tell ourselves it’s all in our heads. What would elsewhere seem like Meryl Streep sticking on a suffocating veneer of another of her patented perfect accents instead feels honest and subversive here. Rather than coating over any sense of truth or raw honesty in a fickle display of traditionally perfectionist class (the sort of blasé, too-composed acting Streep perfected long ago and robbed her of the ability to ever give an interesting performance again), Snook uses the superficiality of the performance to do her character justice and to comment on the nature of the superficiality of gender.
Outside of Snook, and Hawke’s own smartly reserved, difficult performance, the film narrowly avoids being another in the long line of over-written, desperately clinical puzzle box films that have been hashed and rehashed too unhesitantly over the past two decades (Christopher Nolan makes a living turning these sorts of stories into Baroque reflections of his own ego). Partially, this is simply because Snook and Hawke are so damn good at divining a genuine warmth out of the film’s potentially harsh, uninviting corpulence of narrative. At the same time, there is also a genuine level of filmmaking smarts of display, clipping the film along at a sharp, uncontested beat and never letting the film become too … indulgent is probably the best word.
Elsewhere, there’s a real knack for world-building to this very procedural film that allows it to hide character and place in the clipped, process-driven script around the edges. Time is conveyed less like a reality than a pop-encrusted collective cultural imagination of the time periods depicted, dusted with just enough soft sci-fi twinge to rely on the spirit of the harder-edged speculative sci-fi world-building stories so thick-on-the-ground during the middle-century years. The end result is a work that speculates on its own accord but is so much more aware of the past than the future. It couches its future as a specific amalgamation of the narrative and character based twitches of what other science fiction authors have developed in the past.
It’s an uncommonly fitting style to a story where Hawke spends the majority of the film jumping through time periods to encounter Snook; the directors quite literally spend the entirety of the film following Hawke through these time periods, imagining not simply their own vision of the future but the futures that had been imagined during those time periods previously. They literally and figuratively intermix the past and the future, bleeding the authors who wrote about the future with the pasts they wrote in. They remind how, say, Robert Heinlein’s vision of the future in “All Your Zombies” was influenced by Heinleins’s fears of the newly flexing, malleable gender norms of late ’50s in which he wrote.
In doing so they also remind how our own speculations, or hopes and fears and desires for our future individually and collectively, speak to our current states, or present needs, and our present worries. The Spierig brothers direct with a muscly style that belies a certain sensitivity. At times they outright break the beatific norms of continuity editing in ways that seem amateurish or unrefined. But this soon gives way to a certain playful interpretation of how to assemble and edit shots, the sort of work that could only come from the unkempt wilds of the Outback (the two are Australian) where Hollywood filmmaking norms don’t hold. They appear under-served by convention, revealing themselves to be exactly the second-time directors that they are and still just out of the womb. This lack of refinement gives their film a twitchy, rebellious streak and serves more as a refreshingly raw change of pace than a reflection of bastardized indie ineptness. It’s a sharp film, just well-made enough and certainly well-acted enough to overcome anything its concept throws in its way.