Ethan Hawke plays a kind of time cop in the twisty but brainy thriller "PredestinaSony Pictures

The Spierig Brothers
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Like “Primer” and “Looper,” “Predestination” is a time travel movie that doesn’t look like a time travel movie. A chunk of “Looper” is set on a farm (in the future, mind you). Much of the first half of “Predestination” unfolds in a dive bar. Mostly leapfrogging from the ’50s through ’70s, it travels time not only through a machine — a violin-shaped case with a three-foot radius — but also through extensive narrated flashbacks. (Few things let one travel through time like film editing.) It’s not afraid to be (temporarily) confusing, but more importantly it’s not afraid to feel like different kinds of movies. One might spend the first half wondering why so much time is being spent on an increasingly wild backstory that doesn’t appear to have a bit to do with the power to jump through decades.

When everything finally does tie up together “Predestination” is legitimately sucker-punching, though it does have a cheat: Whereas “Primer” and “Looper” offered original yarns, this goes off a Robert Heinlein short story (1959’s “—All You Zombies—” which has nothing to do with flesheating). An aggressive twist-o-rama, it introduces a time cop (Ethan Hawke) trying to take out a noted terrorist before he launches a massive strike. His investigation brings him to sling drinks at a 1970s New York dive bar, where he chats up a man (Sarah Snook) who promises a wild story. As the actor’s name suggests, he was actually born a she, and s/he rattles off the elaborate and bizarre tale of how she unwittingly gained a Y chromosome. Don’t worry: this will all make sense in the end.

Identical twin filmmakers Michael and Peter Spierig — who last collaborated with Hawke on the vampiric “Daybreakers” — know that they have a crazy story, and much of “Predestination” exploits how audiences will simply want to know where the hell this is going, as well as how the seemingly disparate plot threads will tie the hell up. They can be sloppy; at least a couple major twists aren’t so well concealed. (Let’s just say they’re not “The Prestige”-era Christopher Nolan.) Hawke is his now usual animated self, but he’s not really given a character so much as a pawn to be moved around by the script. Any humanity he has comes from the actor, not the writing.


Snook, though, is given a real character, and she responds by giving a true breakthrough turn. She oozes Emma Stone femininity as a woman and is at least initially convincing as a man, but hers is no stunt performance. She has a haunted presence no matter what gender she is, and her anguish at being forced to evolve grounds a film that intends to be — and excels at being — fragmented. Snook is a key factor as to why “Predestination” isn’t an empty machine, as is the way the Spierigs allow the plethora of heady ideas to surface naturally — with the occasional, not terribly subtle shout-outs to Mobius strips and the chicken-or-the-egg question, that is.

It's amusing how a film about time travel and "Minority Report" pre-cognition more or less ignores those notions — but, then, it winds up being about so much more.Notions of creation, gender identity and the mutability of the self bob and weave throughout the snaky tale. Without giving too much away, it’s a shape-shifter about shape-shifting, and its most gutting idea is similar to one contained in another Hawke film, “Boyhood.” There are a lot of hairpin turns through "Predestination," but its heart is both in the head and the heart.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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