Volition is a satisfying puzzle-box thriller that benefits immensely from not over-explaining its central premise. Tony Dean Smith's directorial debut is a tightly constructed sci-fi novella peppered with intriguing twists and callbacks that’ll leave you hankering for a rewatch. But be warned, it may also prompt you to revisit the video for Kylie Minogue’s silky-synthy 2001 pop banger, “Come Into My World.”
Our hero is James (Adrian Glynn McMorran), a good-hearted if gloomy ne’er-do-well who can see glimpses of the future. However, he does so without totally understanding the course of events that lead to that point. Ever since a childhood vision of his mother’s sudden death, James' prognostications have always been pretty much spot-on. Unsurprisingly, this has left him with a dour outlook on the world.
“Our choices don't matter,” James says at one point. “Life happens beyond our control.”
As most of us would in this position, James takes the Biff Tannen route of cheating through life in a happenstance kind of way, using his talents to make a name for himself in petty crime. It’s only when he gets caught up in a racket that puts someone he cares about in danger that he’s forced to re-evaluate his sense of agency in the world. He seeks out his foster dad, Elliot (Bill Marchant), who happens to be an expert in precognition and other such timey-wimey matters.
The story truly shifts into high gear in its second half when it becomes a trippy yet deliberately plotted succession of do-overs of a pivotal encounter. This is where the Kylie Minogue reference comes in. To be clear, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that Smith — who co-wrote Volition with his brother Ryan W. Smith — was inspired in any way by this music video. But if you want a slightly spoilery hint as to where this movie goes, check out “Come Into My World.”
Like Kylie and her parade of merry doppelgängers, Volition’s characters are broadly drawn. James is a brooding, reluctant hero who gets involved with Ray (John Cassini), a small-time criminal with an eye for schemes far above his pay grade. Angela (Magda Apanowicz) is a charming looker who curiously sticks around after her new suitor starts waving some pretty huge red flags. Elliot’s beardy bookishness is tinged with isolation and regret.
That broadness works well here, letting the compelling premise shine brightest. None of these characters are aggressively quippy. There are no allusions to an offscreen trove of tedious lore making Volition all the better for it. If you enjoyed Leigh Whannell’s 2018 Upgrade, which had a similarly surefooted and economical approach to storytelling, you’ll probably get a kick out of Volition as well. At the same time, if you like high-concept sci-fi but find Christopher Nolan’s movies a bit overwrought, Volition is a breath of fresh air.
One of the most welcome aspects of Volition is the ambiguity of when it all takes place. We begin in a city that’s presumably Los Angeles but spend much of our time in cramped strip-mall offices and alleys before making a break for the sticks. At one point, James and Angela pull over on a remote highway after the engine of their car overheats. As James explains his unconventional talent, a cop passes by and questions them. When the officer asks why they didn't call a tow truck, Angela says they don’t have a phone.
There are no smartphones in Volition. All the cars are boxy clunkers with cardboard trees dangling from the rearview. Ray’s desk doesn’t have a computer at all, let alone one of any distinctive vintage. The characters hew to simple fashions, none of which leap out as belonging to a particular decade. The dialogue doesn’t contain references to contemporary TV or movies that might be a giveaway of when we are.
Volition could plausibly take place at any point from 1985 to 2020. Its chronology is entirely self-contained. Yet the film never goes to any particularly great lengths to point out the meticulous care it likely took to maintain that illusion throughout its 92-minute runtime, which is a true feather in its cap. As a viewer, you’re left with this nagging question that sticks in your craw.
You may want to watch Volition again to see if you spot a stray iPhone or CRT television. You may want to watch it to see the hints about later events you missed. Either way, you will want to watch it again.
Volition is out now on Apple TV, Prime Video, and other VOD platforms.