Deep Focus: Predestination
Brothers who team up as moviemakers are often organic virtuosos—think the Tavianis in The Night of the Shooting Stars and Kaos, the Coens in No Country for Old Men and Inside Llewyn Davis, or, in a pop, sci-fi/fantasy vein, the Wachowskis in The Matrix. It’s as if their bond empowers them to go out on an artistic limb without losing their emotional foundation. So it is with the German-born Australians Peter and Michael Spierig, identical twins who co-write and co-direct their films. In their breakthrough horror feature, Daybreakers (10), they devised a string of dynamite flourishes that lasted 45 minutes. Using a slick, contemporary visual idiom, they unveiled their vampire world as vividly as F.W. Murnau did Transylvania in Nosferatu, even if Daybreakers eventually ran out of originality and élan.
Their new film, Predestination, plays like one sustained, boldly extended storytelling flourish: it’s a rare head trip that’s both humane and haunting. By the end, even bad jokes and tired riddles come together in a giddy concatenation of thought and feeling. When a central character asks, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” he answers for himself: “The rooster.” We learn that he’s not just being absurd, imbecilic or sarcastic. He’s presaging the movie’s existential triple whammies.
In this acute adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s mind-bending 1959 time-travel story “—All You Zombies—” the wayward hero, a “Temporal Agent” known as The Bartender (Ethan Hawke), hurtles across decades from 1945 to 1992 with a series of bumps and splashes, like a flat stone skimming time’s river. He’s on a dual quest to defuse a homegrown terrorist nicknamed The Fizzle Bomber and to recruit a true-confessions columnist who goes by the moniker The Unmarried Mother (despite being male). You could say this movie is about the world’s most outlandish bar bet. As The Bartender slings drinks at a saloon called “Pop’s Place,” The Unmarried Mother boasts to The Bartender that his own life story is more remarkable than anything he’s written for his column or any tall tale the barkeep might have heard from a drunk. The Bartender wagers a bottle on it and The Unmarried Mother commences by announcing he started life as a “girl.” (Trust me on the pronouns!) His story could be called “Dickensian”—if Dickens had written about a time when people were rapt with curiosity about Christine Jorgensen’s sex change or could envision an American space agency establishing an orbiting concubine service for sex-hungry astronauts.
Originally called Jane, The Unmarried Mother battles her way into adolescence as a two-fisted tomboy/nerd in a 1940s Cleveland orphanage. She tries out for the female wing of the SpaceCorps in the 1960s (it’s like a high-class escort service), only to be rejected for reasons not yet revealed to her (or to us). She becomes a “mother’s helper” for a suburban Ohio family while attending night school, but soon gets impregnated by the only fellow who’d been kind to her. The doctors who deliver her baby via C-section discover that she has an undeveloped set of male sex organs and a female set just developed enough to make her a mother. Out of concern for her health, they turn her into a man.
These moviemakers know just when to let The Unmarried Mother take a breath and check out The Bartender’s reactions. Flashbacks and flash-forwards tumble into a volatile “present” like the cascading pieces of a domino stunt, without the laborious setup. The film’s focused visual approach to period scenes matches The Bartender’s unassuming manner and modest-looking time travel device, which fits inside a violin case. Only the story is baroque. As the action flashes backward and forward, you’re compelled to wonder why The Bartender juggles his recruitment of The Unmarried Mother in the early 1970s with his attempt to stymie The Fizzle Bomber, who is due to plant a bomb that will kill 11,000 people in 1975 New York. In its own perilously peculiar fashion, the movie captures the fluidity of “identity” and the challenges of maintaining it in our chaotic, terrorized world.
Hawke and Sarah Snook, who plays The Unmarried Mother, are nearly ideal casting for these characters. They’re engagingly enigmatic—a requirement for playing mystery men—yet they also react to each other body and soul. Even when playing a submerged character, Hawke lets his instincts take over. You can read the significance of an action in the shifting wattage of his eyes; his voice becomes more expressive the closer it gets to a Kris Kristofferson rumble. And Hawke proves to be a wonderful partner for Snook.
A youthful veteran of Australian TV and movies, Snook is heartbreaking and inspiring, whether as a man who struggles to feel comfortable in his own skin or a teenager named Jane who feels like an outsider. Abandoned as an infant, her character grows up yearning for parents, or for anyone who might appreciate her formidable mental and physical strength. Although Snook is not 100 percent convincing as a full-grown male—she looks like the young Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boy’s Life (92)—her eloquence as a performer, and the Spierigs’ empathy and cleverness, make you eager to suspend disbelief. One of the film’s many touching and funny sequences depicts Jane learning, much as an actor would, how to sound like a male. It’s all the more wrenching because, as an individualistic female, she had to be taught how to look and flirt like a girl. Snook could play Emma Stone’s sister, but she has a remarkable elasticity and a quirky, square-cut beauty of her own. As Jane, her appeal is inseparable from her liveliness and intelligence. It’s typical of this film’s satiric use of pulp clichés that Jane hides her beauty behind glasses. When she doffs them at her interview for the women’s branch of the SpaceCorps, the whoa-baby reaction of some astronaut observers scores the movie’s biggest belly laugh.
The Spierigs are strikingly intelligent adapters here. Rather than update Heinlein’s post-Sputnik projections of the future, the filmmakers present them as pungent alternate realities that might have happened (or could still be happening!) in some parallel universe. Except for adding The Fizzle Bomber and a Temporal Bureau honcho named Mr. Robertson (Noah Taylor), who shepherds new agents and doles out assignments to old ones, the Spierig Brothers hew closely to Heinlein. (There may be no Fizzle Bomber in the story but there is mention of a Fizzle War.) Heinlein’s brief, brilliant fantasy came out three years before Chris Marker’s short, La Jetée. Like Marker’s time-travel masterpiece, it features a serpentine narrative that coils around and bites its characters. The title “–All You Zombies—” comes from The Bartender’s climactic rant (retained in the film’s voiceover): “I know where I come from, but where did all you zombies come from?”
The choices the brothers make as screenwriters shape the movie’s look, including their confident blend of discordant visual styles. They daringly mute the colors for 1945 Cleveland—the time and place of Jane’s unusual birth. Postwar America has never before looked quite so glum as in this movie. But the Spierigs also indulge in a snazzy Pop look for Jane’s experience of the SpaceCorps-crazed 1960s, then go for the grunge in a mid-1970s New York awash in dirty-blonde hues and grime-flecked silver light. Even the most playful, eye-catching strokes, like female SpaceCorps recruits donning designer stewardess uniforms, carry disquieting overtones: the best hope for these out-of-this-world courtesans is to become an astronaut’s actual wife.
In every era, the Spierigs’ uncanny compositional sense enables them to find the framing that makes an image harrowing, amusing, or both. Their visceral sense of space gives farcical oomph to the scene of grade-school Jane cracking a car’s headlight with her fist. The almost abstract sight of a jet soaring past a glass skyscraper pulls viewers into a space-age aesthetic, just as an off-kilter image of a drunk shaking a jukebox instantly evokes a New York City on the skids.
The song that’s playing on the juke, by the way, is “I’m My Own Grandpa”—a telling choice and a prime example of the Spierigs’ shrewd deployment of Heinlein’s details. They salvage his stealthily witty lines, like the description of an anonymous baby-snatcher as a man “with a face-shaped face.” They find wall-space for some of his jocular “By-Laws of Time”—like “Never Do Yesterday What Should Be Done Tomorrow,” and “If At Last You Do Succeed, Never Try Again”—and work the concept that “A Paradox May Be Paradoctored” into the dialogue. They also spin out timelines as easily as a spider does webs.
What makes Predestination their best step forward is its nimble emotionality and heft. The movie has a pungency all its own. As the picture unspools, it’s poignant to think that Temporal Agents like The Bartender and his key recruit, The Unmarried Mother, are doomed to loneliness, for reasons intimate and professional. So it’s heartening that their job gives them purpose. Because of the Spierigs’ deft embellishments, and their mastery of point of view, the perspectives of The Bartender and The Unmarried Mother converge with a bang—and Heinlein’s glancing insights gain new dramatic clout.
Heinlein writes: “It’s a shock to have it proved to you that you can’t resist seducing yourself.” Predestination fleshes out that idea and seduces the audience.