“Predestination,” a time-travel thriller with some transgender themes, is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, shrouded in itself. Though the film’s concluding sequence gives the impression that it’s wrapping up the twisty, time-bending narrative, a closer look reveals the plot to be even more pleasantly confounding than initially suggested. Like the great time-travel movies of the past, this one doesn’t make any sense. And yet the question at its core is perfectly clear, and delightfully explored, revealing the futility of the conceit: what good is altering the past if human nature will never change?
Starring Ethan Hawke and based on a 1959 short story by the science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein, “Predestination” would be one big spoiler if its cleverness outweighed its very big heart. It does not. The movie’s pleasures are found not only in the revelations of the plot, but in the performances and the characters, not to mention the stylish, analog aesthetics.
So it’s not unfair to say that Hawke’s unnamed character works for a secret organization that sends its agents back in time to prevent terrible acts of violence. Here, he’s trying to track down an elusive terrorist known as the Fizzle Bomber before thousands are killed in a catastrophic attack in 70s-era New York. In his travails, Hawke’s character poses as a bartender to cross paths with John, a magazine columnist who was once Jane, a remarkable young woman who never quite fit in anywhere for reasons that are quickly obvious. John soon gets a crash course in time travel because Hawke believes he has knowledge that could lead to the bomber’s whereabouts.
What happens next is not for me to say, but it happens rather briskly, despite a story that is sweeping in scope, touching on issues of identity and free will, how the benefit of hindsight and good intentions are invariably trumped by immediate wants. The film, ultimately, is about the unknowability of oneself, and as John/Jane, the relatively unknown actress Sarah Snook embodies that sentiment with pathos. Vengeful, confused, and tender — a flawed hero whose tragic story justifies the genre, not the other way around — Snook is something of a revelation herself.
Borrowing from the look and themes of film noir, “Predestination” unfolds in perfect harmony with its subject matter. The film presents time travel as a weary, fatalistic business, one that slowly degrades the sanity of those who risk it. Hawke — first in control, then manic, and unstable — shows us that process. He is the perfect actor for this type of movie, which is ostensibly modest, but finally profound. In its pulpy, paperback way, “Predestination” — at a mere 97 minutes and now available on video on demand — is a minor masterpiece.
A version of this review appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on January 22, 2015.