Though “Predestination” is all about time travel, the how’s-it, what’s-it of the process is hardly consequential. When the nameless main character, played by Ethan Hawke, tries explaining the device he implements to leap through eras creates a temporal wake, or some such, he notices the blank look on the person’s face to whom he’s describing this and just gives up. “It’s a time machine,” he says. Like, exactly. Totally. Amen, brother. What else do we need to know? It’s all wonderfully low-key, and that time-traveling device, a guitar case adorned with locking numbers allowing you to enter the date and time of your destination, is low-key too, befitting a movie that keeps things simple even as it makes your head spin, focusing its efforts on just a few characters. They may bounce around the century, changing locales, changing looks, changing styles, but “Predestination” remains surprisingly intimate. Even if you can jump through time, it’s a small world after all.
Hawke’s character is a Temporal Agent, enlisted by America’s Space Corp to travel through time and stop crimes before they happen. In that way, he’s a little like Tom Cruise of “Minority Report”. But whereas that film employed a dystopian future as something of meditation on guilt before innocence in a post-September 11th climate where if you saw anything you were expected to say something, “Predestination”, its budget much lower, its tone a lot grittier, primarily employs its premise to ruminate on the paradoxes of who we are. Look no further than Hawke’s protagonist who remains nameless throughout because as the film progresses the more difficult it becomes to grasp just who he is, his identity an amorphous blob that I had no more handle on by the end of the film then I did at the beginning. And that’s partly by design.
The varying twists and turns of the plot concern the nature of identity, and how for all our relationships with other people, it’s ourselves in whose company we end up the most, a fact which is terrifying yet strangely comforting. Although to dig too deep into just how this comes to be might be regaling you with a few too many spoilers, that old critical warhorse. So suffice it to say that Hawke’s character, for reasons that will eventually become clear, is tending bar one wintry New York night in 1975 when the city is under siege by some loose cannon called The Fizzle Bomber. Things turns when an ordinary joe named John walks in and claims he can tell Hawke’s barkeep the best story he’s ever heard.
He’s not kidding. John, the face behind a newspaper column called The Unmarried Mother, started out as Jane, it seems (played, it should be said, in a performance by Sarah Snook that convincingly goes two ways at once which makes total sense when you see it), a tough cookie of an orphan with “one of a kind” internal organs that suggest she/he is both simultaneously. After her/his baby is born, complications arise, and the doctor has to make her a him permanently. It’s complicated and the film relays the story in flashback, impressively taking a full forty minutes of screen time to unpack this wild tale. And once it ends, Hawke reveals he knows John/Jane even better than John/Jane knows him/herself.
It makes no sense, really, why he’d sit there and listen to this whole story he already knows, but then sometimes we like to listen to stories we already know, don’t we? And besides, applying “sense” and “logic” to a film like “Predestination” is where you’ll go wrong. Not because the narrative will fissure, necessarily, but because “Predestination’s” absurd assembly line of convolutions is an effortless evocation of how time beats logic to a bloody pulp and leaves us all quaking at the sight of the big hand and the little hand, moving, moving on, with or without us.