A man walks into a bar. At some point, he asks the bartender for a joke. “A man walks into a bar,” the bartender says, and stops there. The butt of the joke sarcastically but good-humoredly retorts “Very funny,” and demands a better one. The bartender (Ethan Hawke) insists that he knows no good jokes, but tries a chicken road-crossing one. It fails miserably, but he recovers by getting philosophical: “Do you ever wonder about that? The chicken and egg, which one came first?” Humoring the bartender, the man confidently declares “The rooster!”
The innocuous bar talk directly reflects the humble premise of the plot, which continues with the man telling his story to the bartender. Turns out he is “Unmarried Mother” (Sarah Snook), the pseudonym of a popular writer of confession stories with a very interesting past. Directors Michael and Peter Spierig don’t embellish the scene in any way; the camera simply follows Unmarried Mother and the bartender as they drink, shoot pool, and sit down at a table over the course of the story. Rather, the rapport between Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook completely mesmerizes the audience. We are there in the booth with them, following the story over a cool glass of beer.
While the setting and the camaraderie make for comfort, there is still the feeling of something slightly off that delightfully tickles at one’s curiosity, a characteristic of good science-fiction. Perhaps this is due to the explosive opening scene set in the chromium future—an antithesis to the homely bar—which reveals that the bartender is actually on a time traveling mission for “the Temporal Bureau” to stop the infamous Fizzle Bomber. These disjointed scenes grow less confusing as the film goes on and things begin to make more sense. Based on Robert A. Heinlein’s short story “—All You Zombies—“, it isn’t until the very end that the last piece falls into place and the audience sees the full picture of this stunningly original and creative story.
Snook’s incredible performance however is what truly cements that slightly off feeling. From the moment she steps into the bar she has an interesting androgynous look and demeanor. Everything about her character is unique and one of a kind, and Sarah Snook rises to the challenge magnificently. The makeup artists are great, but it’s her voice and her lazy gaze that make her character look truly haggard and jaded. As if that weren’t enough, Unmarried Mother’s story is also told in flashbacks, recounting how he was a very different person at the time. Snook just as easily inhabits Unmarried Mother’s earlier, contrasting self, highlighting her raw acting talent.
The plot is convoluted and can unravel if its logic is tested, but the brilliance of Predestination is that its intricate story is only incidental to the raw humanity found in the Spierig brothers’ storytelling. Although keeping up with an adventure’s twists and turns isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, the intimate dialogue and spellbinding acting in the foreground provide plenty of empathetic drama. That said, hardcore science fiction fans will love how the screenplay unrelentingly takes the time paradox to a whole other level. It refuses to slow down and explain itself, leaving it up to the audience to ponder its plausibility.
The film also leaves questions quite apart from the technical elements of time travel, such as the search for identity and the influence of fate. It is so rare that a science-fiction film can be so complex on so many facets and still be a straightforward movie experience in a mere 97 minutes. It is precisely because nobody is prepared for where this film takes us that makes Predestination such a triumph.
So much more than a pristine science-fiction featuring a breakout performance by Sarah Snook.