The midway point in the low-budget sci-fi thriller “Volition” is a real make-or-break moment. It’s there that this film about a clairvoyant who tries to avert the doom he sees in his future takes a turn and adds on baggage.
Midway is where director and co-writer (with his brother Ryan) Tony Dean Smith decides to graft on a second sci-fi sub-genre to the whole “sees the future” thing. Of their own volition, they give themselves a “do over” element that could easily derail their lean and gritty tale of a seer who gets mixed up with the mob.
But the performances save it. The pathos of the picture pays off. And the puzzle that the Smiths create doesn’t slow down the panicky pace enough to stop it in its tracks.
Adrian Glynn McMorran (Murmur on TV’s “Flash”) gives a sardonic and scruffy Sam Rockwellish take to our hero and narrator, James.
His life? He’s “stuck, watching the re-run,” the fate of someone who sees snippets of his futur — if he answers this door-knock, ducks that punch or places what he knows will be the right bet.
“If this was simple to explain, I’d do it.”
So he doesn’t. Not even after he’s “rescued” a woman (Magda Apanowicz of “The Green Inferno” and “Caprica”) living in her car from a mugging.
The low-rent mobster Ray (John Cassini) whose front business is a window warehouse? He doesn’t need an explanation. He and James go way back.
“I need you to do that thing you do inside that head of yours.”
He has this diamond score he got from “The Zimbabweans” he needs James to “move” for him. And his cousin Sal (Frank Cassini) will be there to ensure Jimmy doesn’t get any big ideas.
But there are “big ideas” and betrayals. Blood will be spilled, diamonds will disappear, James will consult “Professor Fruitloops,” his “stepfather” (Bill Marchant), and the picture will almost get out of hand, because of that midpoint twist-too-far.
The South African Smith brothers graduate from Canadian TV movies with a film that dispenses with a lot of more conventional elements to zero in on the matter at hand — that awful fate that James sees in his future and how he can avoid it.
It’s a far more interesting film when it’s just focused on the clairvoyant and his machinations to get enough to pay the rent, pay for drinks and generally stagger through life. Even the “big score,” which promises to be a life-changing payout, doesn’t hold that much interest.
James is fascinating in how myopic he is, literally and figuratively. His foresight is narrow in focus, limited enough that he can’t see every ripple that will cross his path from his every action.
The script’s intellectual and moral debate about “fate” and one’s ability to alter or not alter it, is far less compelling than the simple routine of how somebody would use this special talent in unchallenging and limited ways, just to get by.
“All skill and no will,” is Ray’s put-down for the way James lives.
McMorran’s performance suggests the damage this has done to this man’s life, the burdens he carries and the self-medicating he does just to stay in “the present.” Even seeing the near future with an attractive woman is a losing proposition. Where’s the challenge to be at your best when you’ve already seen this play out?
But the Smiths make a classic supernatural thriller mistake with that midpoint twist. “Volition” turns all puzzle and “explanations,” when simpler is always better.
At least they and McMorran keep the focus on James, a character who remains magnetic even if the filmmakers are hellbent on erasing “enigmatic” from his resume.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, alcohol abuse, smoking, profanity
Credits: Directed by Tony Dean Smith, script by Tony Dean Smith and Ryan W. Smith. A Giant Pictures release on Apple TV+, Amazon Prime Video, etc.
Running time: 1:32