Volition (2019)

Volition first published by SciFiNow

“They say when you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes,” says James (Adrian Glynn McMorran) in voice-over at the beginning of Volition. “I wish it were that simple.”

James is practically announcing that this film, directed by Tony Dean Smith and co-written with his brother Ryan Smith, is a chronicle of a death foretold. Yet James is gifted, or cursed, with the ability to see clear glimpses of the future, while his knowledge of his own past is decidedly lacunose. Filtered through James’ uniquely ‘entangled’ perspective, chronology in Volition moves in mysterious ways. “This lousy life has played out before,” as James puts it, “and somehow I’m stuck watching the re-run.” Even the film’s title is confrontational and counterintuitive, given that James’ clairvoyance implies a deterministic universe where free will is a mere illusion. We all know that we are going to die. The problem for James is that he has a pretty clear idea where, when and how he is going to die. The death itself – and its circumstances – seem immutable. 

James’ foreknowledge gives him an edge over others – an edge that makes him an asset for his criminal associates – but it is also an edge that he is unable fully to exploit, because his exploitation of it is already written. All that matters, all that gives his life meaning, is the gaps in his premonitions, the events that he does not foresee. Short on cash, James has a ‘chance’ encounter with Angela (Magda Apanowicz) – in a universe where there is perhaps no chance, only hard causality – and knows that they are going to have a relationship. Moments later James is called to gangster Ray (John Cassini), who offers him ten thousand dollars to find safe passage for a bag full of blood diamonds worth millions. 

Needless to say, things will go belly up, as Ray’s muscle Sal (Frank Cassini) and Terry (Aleks Paunovic) decide to betray their boss, steal the diamonds and make their own fortune. “We do this right,” Sal tells Terry, “everything changes.” James sees this coming – indeed, sees his own death – leading him to flee with Angela to the home of his foster father Elliot (Bill Marchant), where things become very complicated, and Volition veers into TimeCrimes territories. 

James is prescient, but not omniscient – and it is the gaps in his knowledge that represent the ambiguous space in which the plot of Volition can complicate itself, even find room to break free of its own carefully delineated confines. The great irony is that a film of this kind must be closely plotted (once you get your head around what is going on), but its characters come across as real and random in their interactions. That inscrutable interplay between tight scripting and apparent improvisation reflects the film’s central philosophical dilemma about free will.

Volition is, in a way, a film about its own writing, and the unusual detours that writers can take in pursuit of what they initially conceive as a fixed idea with a prescribed ending. James’ childhood sketchbooks, and the elaborate diagrams that he draws on his wall, are like the post-it notes that writers arrange and rearrange as they plan out the details and interconnections in their screenplay, where revisions are no less important than plot outlines, and where each deviation creates a different, parallel world. As the Smith Brothers work their way through this paradoxical conundrum, the result is Volition itself, an ingenious product as much of optimistic will as of entrapping design, with a miraculous, impossible ending. 

© Anton Bitel