Volition (2020) | VOD
I was eager to watch this film, knowing that it made its rounds in the film festival circuit, and by all accounts was received very well. I won’t decry the accolades it picked up, as it undoubtedly earned them. Volition is not a paradox of a film, but maybe it was trying to be.
Time-travel is a paradoxical narrative for any film because it turns up its nose in the face of plausibility. “They say when you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes. I wish it were that simple,” says James, our hero played by Adrian Glynn McMorran. This is the first line of dialogue in Volition. A film that leans on the tropes of time travel, fate and destiny, and the flexibility of morals. In these few opening words, the film’s hopeful promise is that we are in for a ride.
Well, not so fast.
The task of juggling a plot with interweaving scenes that parallel each other, which is the approach of many time-travel movies, is certainly not an easy feat. It has been done before in Back to the Future and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Volition covers similar ground, crafting scenes that demand multiple viewings.
Tony Dean Smith steps into the ring for the first time as a solo feature director, and it shows. This film asks a lot of its director. I can confidently say that Smith has a budding grasp on how to bring us into important beats of the film; he then smartly returns us to the same spot in time. This opens our eyes to different sides of the same scene. However, he still makes small concessions that keep him in the weight class of amateurs and grad students.
Smith and his writing partner (and sibling) Ryan Smith most assuredly story-boarded for months before rolling film. I see a spark in the eyes of Smith; a growing light. He is a product of his influences, which isn’t a bad thing. His tight close-ups of eyes and objects give urgency, reminding me of Fincher. The often reverse method in which we are presented new information echoes early-Nolan sensibilities. Although he is a talented storyteller, the low budget held his abilities back unfortunately. That’s not a fault on him, as he is still paying his dues as a rising auteur. This film is decent, but now he needs to make a better one.
Without a doubt, Volition will be rivaled with the likes of Looper, The Butterfly Effect, 12 Monkeys, The Terminator, and the aforementioned Back to the Future. This is fair in the context of comparing time-travel movies. The themes of cause and effect, free will, and destiny are all (often mandatory) staples in this sci-fi niche. Here in Volition, these ideas are very much par for the course. James, or Jimmy -- depending on who is asking -- is on the journey to find structure and answers. He is tall, handsome, and behind on his rent. He is also a clairvoyant. We see him use his “gift” of precognition to take advantage of the small interactions he has with people he passes on the street. He steals someone’s cigarettes; he places bets knowing the outcome of the televised boxing match. Does he even have a moral compass? For all his talent, he doesn’t seem particularly keen on doing more than that. Perhaps it is because he has recurring visions of a horrible future. He is approached by an old acquaintance interested in using Jimmy’s skills to provide safe passage or illegally seized diamonds. This favor promises to net millions of dollars of which a nice piece will go to Jimmy, who has a landlord running out of patience. But the diamonds don’t matter here. What matters are the consequences. The first act is standard set-up and introductions, but it lacks strong conviction. I wish there was more tension. I just couldn’t get too invested with Jimmy’s plight because the first 30 minutes are very paint-by-numbers. Quite frankly, it bored me. It isn’t until the third act when the kinetic energy shifts to excitement and wonder. But the resolution isn’t wholly original or as mind-bending as it wants to be. However, to spoil this outcome would be close to impossible. To its own credit, the ending of Volition would not make much sense unless you knew the pieces in play that led to it.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
We are introduced early to a side character, Angela (Magda Apanowicz). She’s lovely but cautious. Besides knowing snippets of back story, she exists solely to tie a knot on a piece of Jimmy’s development. I wish I knew more about her. There is a brief exchange where Angela is first walking through James’ apartment. She observes photos containing his deceased foster mother and his overbearing “father figure” Elliot. “That’s really sweet,” she says. “It says something about you.” James replies, “I don’t know what you mean.” This is the best exchange of dialogue in this film.
The character of Elliot, played by Bill Marchant, bears a striking resemblance to Nick Offerman, and provides the gaps in exposition that Jimmy forgets to deliver. The antagonists in this film are almost cartoon-ish, with their worn phrases and heavy profanity. Having watched this film twice, I couldn’t tell you their names. Volition has a short runtime of 91 minutes. Practically every line spoken services the plot. For a film that asks its audience to reflect on morality and destiny, it could allow some time to breathe.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
"...This film shows Smith has the chops for ambitious storytelling, he just needs more practice..."
The effects are spread among practical and digital fairly evenly. There isn’t much to challenge the viewer in terms of visuals. The process that Jimmy uses to travel through time is simple and to the point. Given the soft budget, that's a good thing. We aren’t graced with screen-filling light vortexes to convey time travel because that would be unnecessary. There is enough good work here stemming from simplicity that fits the world we’re put in.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
The score and sound are serviceable. The shining moments are in the reflective scenes when Jimmy looks back at past events. Music in film shouldn’t be a crutch but an expansion of the moment, and the music in Volition executes this very well.
Volition is about moments and choices and I mean that in the most all-encompassing way possible. Choices linger between the characters, filmmakers, and us. It is because of this construction that the title is apt and appropriate. This isn’t a story set to be staged in reality, because how could it be? I wasn’t won over by this movie, but I can see that I may be in the minority. The theme of sacrifice and moral steering will resonate well with most audiences I feel, although this story has been done better before. Tony Dean Smith crafts a nebulous atmosphere with a strong message. A quote spoken by the main baddie goes something like, “All skill and no will.” I wouldn’t say that is an ironic critique on the film itself, as Volition shows the promise that lies ahead. But is it worth watching? Once for sure, and definitely again after Smith puts out his next feature to appreciate his growth. His trajectory aims high. This film shows Smith has the chops for ambitious storytelling, he just needs more practice.