Rating: 6 out of 10
Ethan Hawke as The Bartender
Directed by Michael and Peter Spires
A temporal agent (Ethan Hawke) is sent back to 1975 to stop a bomber that will kill thousands. While working undercover as a bartender, he meets a woman who tells him the story about how her life was ruined so he gives her an opportunity to get payback for what was done to her.
It’s hard to say much about the latest genre (and gender) bending flick by Australia’s Spierig Brothers (Daybreakers) without getting into heavy spoiler territory, but it’s obvious they were trying to create something as complex and intricate as Rian Johnson’s Looper in terms of what can be done with time travel. The results are a stylish film that doesn’t really have much in the way of action, focusing more on creating drama and tension between the characters as it unravels the pieces to a puzzle that may or may not deliver once assembled, depending on your perspective.
The opening sequence offers some idea of the noir films that influenced the look of the Spierigs’ latest, as we watch a man in a trench coat carrying a metal brief case and what looks like a violin case trying to defuse a bomb, which explodes leaving him burnt and deformed. We cut forward to see the mystery man in a hospital after reconstructive surgery and learn that it’s Ethan Hawke’s temporal agent, a “time cop,” whose next mission is to go back to 1970s New York to stop a bomber who will ultimately kill thousands of people.
Sounds good so far, but then over the next 30 to 40 minutes, we are literally in a bar watching Hawke tending bar and listening to the sob story of an androgynous self-help writer relay a story about his/her shattered dreams. Again, it’s hard to go into too much detail without giving everything away, but that writer is played by Sarah Snook, who is pretty good looking even when dressed up as a man. As she regales her tale, we learn how “Jane” was found as a baby and grew up as a feisty young woman before being drafted into a secret government space program, only to be released once they discover a genetic abnormality. She’s all alone and unemployed when she meets a man and gets pregnant, only to have that baby stolen from her… and that’s about as much as we can reveal.
Intriguing? Sure, but it also drags as this mysterious “woman” tells her life story, especially for anyone going into this expecting an action movie involving time travel. It does eventually get back to that aspect of the story when our hero, Hawke’s bartender, offers to give her payback to the man responsible for ruining her life by taking her back in time to a key moment in her life. If the movie hasn’t lost you already, the last act is where it’s really going to test your patience with following a number of twists, some more obvious than others.
Hawke’s reunion with the Spierigs is essentially a two-hander between him and Sarah Snook, and a lot of the movie has to deal with the relationship between their characters. Hawke brings more weight to a fairly bland genre role, but Snook is quite phenomenal, since she’s playing multiple roles in different time periods.
It takes some time before we learn what their bar encounter has to do with the opening, but once Hawke’s character travels with “Jane” back in time, you start to figure out what is going on, more or less. There are so many hints this is where it’s going, but most of them are veiled in dialogue that feels like rhetorical nonsense at the time, and it’s hard not to feel like something is off. The movie’s few action sequences are mostly shoehorned into the plot to try to keep the movie from getting bogged down in its own overly-complicated plot.
It’s hard to completely hate the movie, because it’s something we don’t see often enough—an original and unique twist on the overused time travel sub-genre of sci-fi, but it’s such a strange concept as much about gender identity as it is about time travel, which could throw people off if they don’t know about that element beforehand. It’s certainly not something that’s telegraphed from the trailer or the opening sequence that sets things up for more of a crime noir thriller in the vein of “Dark City.” Because of that opening, you’ll probably watch the bar sequence wondering what it has to do with anything.
Some of the later twists are obvious, but others come from out of left field, and then we get to the final reveal, an absolutely crazy twist that might lose anyone who hasn’t been paying attention or just anger those who can’t believe that’s what the Spierigs were setting up the entire time.
The Bottom Line:
I really wanted to like this film more than I did. While it’s such an original blend of gritty noir flick with a time travel element, it tends to drag in setting up what may be one of the most unsatisfying and aggravating plot twists in recent memory.