Film critics love the descriptive words "trippy" and "brain-gouging" (more the former than the latter), and they will never be better employed as adjectives than for the Spierig Brothers' time-tripping, mind-blowing science-fiction thriller "Predestination."
The less you know about "Predestination" the better. So allow me to diligently dance around the paradoxical plot points, so as not to spoil the movie's plentiful reveals while relating the joys to be had in wrapping your brain around a Rubik's Cube repurposed as a film noiry crime drama with just a touch of demented fantasy.
At a dingy tavern, a bartender (Ethan Hawke) strikes up a conversation with a strangely androgynous patron (Aussie actress Sarah Snook), a writer of true confession stories written under the byline "Unmarried Mother." The writer bets the bartender he can spin "the best story you ever heard."
Certainly, the strangest as the writer whips up memories of his own birth, back when he was a she named Jane, left at a Cleveland orphanage back in 1945.
In due course, we discover the bartender is a "temporal agent" who, like Jean-Claude Van Damme's "Time Cop," jumps into different time periods to presumably do good deeds. His latest job is to stop the "Fizzle Bomber" from blowing up New York City in the 1970s, killing thousands of people.
How these stories tie together -- along with Jane's seduction and abandonment by a mystery man whose face we never see (really? like savvy sci-fi fans can't figure this one out?) -- holds us with transfixed anticipation as the Spierig brothers (Michael and Peter) create a crackling chronological puzzle based on Robert A. Heinlein's 1960 short story "All You Zombies."
Hawke, who starred in the Spierigs' impressive vampire tale "Daybreakers," strikes a workable balance of world-weary disenchantment and dutiful obligation.
Snook, the promising star of "Jessabelle" (and a dead ringer for a young Frances Fisher), hits the screen with a versatile performance so finely nuanced that had "Predestination" been released by a major Hollywood studio, she might have been a strong contender for a best actress Oscar nomination.
On the downside, "Predestination" verges on clinical coldness. The characters move around more like animated chess pieces than multidimensional human beings.
Even if the "Predestination" windup is stronger than its pitch, the Spierig brothers have hit a jackpot of compelling weirdness.
"Predestination" opens at the Music Box, Chicago. Rated R for language, nudity, sexual situations, violence. 97 minutes. ★ ★ ★