Crime doesn’t pay, repeatedly, in this clever Canadian thriller with a time-loop twist.
Snarled loops of time travel have proved a surprisingly versatile and rewarding fantasy-cinema trope in recent years, from the big-budget likes of “Edge of Tomorrow” to such enterprising indies as “Predestination,” not to mention comedies (“Palm Springs”), horror (“Happy Death Day”), romance (“Before I Fall”) and more. “Volition” makes a worthy addition to that roster: a crime drama whose scruffy protagonist has the gift of clairvoyance, but ends up having to repeatedly mess with the past to fix lethal mistakes to come. Tony Dean Smith’s clever thriller lands July 10 on digital platforms, where it should continue to be as well-received by sci-fi fans as it has been on the genre-festival circuit.
Living above an auto shop, lagging on rent, his appearance an unpromising cross between aging hipster and Ratso Rizzo, James aka Jimmy (Adrian Glynn McMorran) exudes a scraping-by vibe unimproved by his landlord’s eviction threats. If he feels like he’s “stuck watching the rerun” of his own life, that turns out to be for very good reason. Before we quite suss why, however, he’s corralled by fresh-outta-prison Sal (Frank Cassini) and hulking strong-arm Terry (Aleks Paunovic) into a meeting with boss Ray (John Cassini) at the legit-biz front for his illegitimate dealings.
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Ray is in possession of $10 million in diamonds “from some guys in Zimbabwe who stole ’em from some dudes in Angola.” He wants to sell them, naturally, but due to prior felonious antics is being closely watched by the FBI. Ergo he needs Jimmy’s unique expertise: He has “visions” that foresee the future, and can thus hopefully figure out how the jewels might elude the Feds’ detection. A handsome honorarium is exchanged, and our hero takes the stones home for his paranormal thingie to meditate on. Sal and Terry are meant to make sure the diamonds don’t travel any farther afield.
Unfortunately, it turns out that Sal and Terry themselves plan to heist those same goods, a scheme that psychic Jimmy predicts just in time to scramble out the window — taking with him Angela (Magda Apanowicz), a transient damsel just rescued from back-alley distress. They scram in her truck, pursued by the bad guys (eventually also including Ray, who hasn’t realized his own flunkies are betraying him).
At the film’s 40-minute point, all land on the doorstep of Elliot (Bill Marchant), an old mentor who holds the key to Jimmy’s ability to “see things that haven’t happened yet.” He also possesses a serum that provides his erstwhile guinea pig/protégé means to revisit the past. This becomes essential when the present grows lethally violent. So Jimmy goes backwards to prevent disaster — but his efforts only seem to pile up further tragic complications. And every time Jimmy backtracks, there’s another, increasingly debilitated duplicate of himself running around, trying to correct the mistakes of the pre-existing incarnations.
Though well-cast and acted, these characters aren’t exactly deep; in fact, they have practically no backstory at all. But that’s OK, as “Volition” is the kind of enterprise in which the corkscrewing intricacy of plot mechanics are everything, the onscreen personnel just pawns in its gamesmanship. Despite some yakking about quantum physics, as well as debate over preordained fate versus free will, the film basically requires one giant leap of faith to work at all. Fortunately, the Smith brothers’ script (co-writer Ryan also produced) is succinctly propulsive enough to make that easy. Tony Dean’s direction is likewise well calibrated to glide past improbabilities before they even register.
It’s a film more gritty than stylish, but in any case with all key contributions lashed to the service of a tricky narrative with scant gratuitous fat or flamboyance. (The one notable repeated flourish, a giant super-slow-mo closeup of a bullet in mid-flight, seems a bit cheesy as a result.) It’s billed as a feature directorial debut, but the Smiths have been working together and separately on various TV movies and other projects for some years. You can sense the accumulated expertise that makes “Volition” at once lean and densely packed.
It’s not the most profound, spectacular, funny or novel of recent time-travel movies. But it’s the one that best exploits this subgenre’s twisty potential while remaining faithful to the tenor and aesthetic of a traditional, enjoyably humble crime meller. The sci-fi angle that separates it from a noirish 1940s B-pic or a street-smart 1970s thriller is underlined by Matthew Rogers’s pulsing synth score.
“They say when you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes,” intones the voice-over of protagonist James (Adrian Glynn McMorran) at the start of Tony Dean Smith’s Volition. For James, life isn’t that simple, principally because he can occasionally take a peek of the future. Suffice it to say, James is simultaneously gifted and cursed.
James is clairvoyant, which scrambles the narrative and how the pieces come together, if they ever do. Volition is a serpentine sci-fi thriller that wrestles with the perennial conceptions of free will and destiny. As seen in Jaco Van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, the discourse on free will isn’t a new conundrum in any way. But Volition examines it in an intoxicatingly brisk and restless fashion that precisely fits all its puzzle pieces together.
The title alone will have you believe James’s fate is not yet written, as volition is a term that denotes decision-making and free will. When death knocks on our front door, we will be whisked away from this life. We will never know when, but perhaps not knowing when we die is better than knowing exactly when, as the fear of our predetermined death would wreak havoc in our insides, and we would stubbornly try to avert it. But if fate dictated our death, we wouldn’t be able to avert it. For James, he sees himself getting shot in the not-so-distant future. He knows death is approaching, and there’s a part of him that fears it and wants to change the outcome. Through his attempts to overcome death, a quintessential question lingers in the back of the viewer’s mind: is his future already sealed by fate?
“…James is tasked to transport a bag of blood diamonds worth millions in exchange for much-needed rent money.”
James’s affliction of clairvoyance can be traced back to childhood, where he knew his mother was going to die two days before the scarring incident. In present-day, to remember every future vision, James draws inextricable diagrams on the wall of his poky apartment. Soon enough, James has a future vision of a woman in distress a few feet away, and he saves the woman from a couple of virulent men. After being crowned a savior, James has another vision, which shows him that he’ll have a real relationship with Angela (a personable Magda Apanowicz), the woman he saved.
Short on cash, James takes money from one of the violent men’s wallet, and charms Angela with his unbridled charisma. But, the romance of Angela and James is cut short when gangster Ray (a versatile John Cassini) summons James for a potential job. James is tasked to transport a bag of blood diamonds worth millions in exchange for much-needed rent money.
The clairvoyant’s trek is by no means a bloodless journey as Ray’s associates Terry (Aleks Paunovic) and Sal (Frank Cassini) double-cross their boss and try to steal the diamonds for themselves, while James sees his murder. In a moment of haste and apprehension, James takes Angela with him as they evade the scheming goons. They end up at the home of James’s foster father, Elliot (a creepily composed Bill Marchant), where everything comes full circle, though neither James nor the audience knows that yet.
The journey becomes convoluted when James utilizes time-travel to preserve his life and the people around him. Woefully, this isn’t elementary time-bending hopscotch, and his condition slowly corrodes as the realities between past and present become too physically and mentally strenuous to handle.
Supported by a pulsating score composed by Matthew Rogers, the Smith Brothers’ heady script, and Byron Kopman’s superb cinematography (which nicely captures James through trembling close-ups), Volition is a slick mind-bending thriller that never feels miscalculated. It doesn’t, however, offer up a worthwhile relationship between James and Angela. Regrettably, Angela comes to believe James far too easily, and there isn’t that much chemistry between them. That being said, Angela is narratively important, and Magda Apanowicz gives a rounded performance as Angela.
Adrian Glynn McMorran delivers an engaging lead performance as the hopeless criminal-turned-romantic. When we first meet James, he’s insolent and reckless. He also carefully considers his dreadful fate but neglects to consider how Angela will be affected. After the climax devastatingly plays out, James becomes concerned for the people around him impacted by his verboten antics. As Volition travels along a deliberately tangled tightrope, the unwavering determination of the lead is laudable, if somewhat imprudent, and self-regarding.
“…a structurally and morally intricate script that presents a mystery worth exploring…”
Despite the mystic gift he wields, James is not all-knowing. He knows he dies soon, but he doesn’t know all the details prompting his tragic demise. There are purposeful voids between each vivid glance into the future. Not only does that work to build suspense, but the intrigue also prospers on the mystery behind his death. James will be shot, but why and how? Is it intentional, accidental, or instinctive?
Screenwriters Tony and Ryan Smith wrote a structurally and morally intricate script that presents a mystery worth exploring and contemplating long after the credits roll. The film is strictly contained, profoundly feverish, and gratifyingly paradoxical all at once.
Tony Dean Smith’s Volition pushes the viewer to reflect on their existence deeply. Are our lives planned out by some unseen, omnipotent force, or are we really given independence and free will? Unfortunately, unlike James, we will never know. In the meantime, we can try to draw conclusions through sheer belief or spiritual guidance. Either way, our future, and existence don’t come with instructions or clues. And maybe that’s for the best.
Gearing up for a 2020 release, VOLITION is thrilled to land on multiple BEST FESTIVAL FILMS OF 2019 LISTS! Thank you HorrorHound.com, SliceofSciFi.com and ThePeoplesMovies.com, among others, for the shout outs! We’re thrilled to sit alongside such films as Us, Midsommar, Freaks and Parasite!
To top it off, the reviews on these list have been absolutely stellar, as you can read below!
“Volition – by Tony Dean Smith (Frightfest)
One of the few films found on my favorites list this year to play more than the top tier festivals, Tony Dean Smith’s Volition is one of the truly, best hybrids of horror and science fiction this year and perhaps this decade. Anchored by a series of stellar performances that lays a human foundation to the complex storytelling, the film features lead actor Adrian Glynn McMorran as ‘James’ and the character ‘Uncle Ray’ played by the versatile John Cassini. Volition, tells the story of James, who is afflicted by clairvoyance. Going down a wrong path since he was a teen, James one day, witnesses a bunch of events that may lead to his death. As a mysterious woman and a former friend enter his life, James’s world is turned upside down as he puts the pieces together in search of the meaning behind these events as well as who he can trust. One of the most surprising films this year, the Smith Brothers (Tony and Ryan) craft a complex narrative that weaves a mystery that compliments the emotional weight, flawed characters, stellar cinematography, and circular storytelling. Tied up nicely with the strong edit by Tony Dean Smith, Volition just hooks you with the humor, horror, and heart from moment one. (TBA 2020)”
“Thematically Volition is a rich and diverting experience, with moral and ethical conundrums orbiting the central concept of the pliability of fate. The choices finally made by the likeable James, as he seeks to break from the white knuckle grip of inevitability, are compelling and unexpectedly moving.
Movies with this much intelligence and finite logistics are often prone to smug self-aggrandising. They seem to relish the Machiavellian headlock they have inflicted on the viewer, forcing them to acquiesce in the sheer cleverness of it all. Where Volition is crucially different is that it presents its elegant narrative as a case for cherishing the present we live in as connected humans, rather than a celebration of its own hubris.
Volition is an exceptional genre flick with a shit ton of ideas and the limitless heart to express them in a way that charms rather than bulldozes.”
Born in South Africa and living in Vancouver since his teens, Tony Dean Smith is a Director & Writer – known for his visual and elegant camerawork, grounded performances and sharp sense of story. His feature-film directorial debut, VOLITION, is an elevated sci-fi thriller that has swept up awards across the world, receiving rave reviews – and has been flatteringly compared to MEMENTO, LOOPER, and BLACK MIRROR. He was the youngest director on the acclaimed television series ROBSON ARMS (3 episodes), helmed the series pilot for HEALTH NUTZ and has written and directed multiple long form movies, including “Love Under The Rainbow” for Hallmark, the stylish Lifetime thriller “The Killer Downstairs” along with the upcoming “Guesthouse Affairs” and “The College Killer.” A life-long camera nerd and storyboard artist, his ability to see the edit before the shoot allows him to save hours of production time, doubly aided by his background as an award-winning picture editor. As an actor of stage (yes, jazz hands) and screen (X-FILES, POLTERGEIST), Tony’s sense of character, precision and playfulness are always present, giving him unparalleled comfort on set – allowing truly authentic and courageous collaboration between his fellow producers, actors and crew.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Ryan is a writer for film and television, living between Los Angeles and Vancouver. Recent credits include: Adapting a confidential political drama feature for Anonymous Content; writing on the animated feature, “Next Gen,” starring John Krasinski and Constance Wu (Netflix Original); Co-writing and Producing the feature sci-fi thriller, “Volition” (Smith Brothers/Paly Productions) with his brother, Tony Dean Smith, the film’s Director; writing and serving as Senior Story Editor/Writer for “ReBoot: The Guardian Code” (Netflix Original); serving as Supervising-Producer/Writer on “Some Assembly Required” (Netflix Original); and as Senior Executive Story Editor/Writer on “Mr. Young” (Disney). Between the above series, Ryan has written on over 150 episode of television, and received two Leo Awards. He is also the winner of the ScreenCraft Fellowship and an Austin Film Festival Semifinalist for his historical thrillers, “Jacaranda” and “Black Messiah.” Ryan and his brother Tony are also winners of the Superchannel Super Catalyst Award for their screenplay, “The Sensational.”
We are thrilled to announce that Giant Pictures has acquired the U.S. rights to VOLITION! The film will premiere on Apple Movies, Amazon Prime Video, and other Digital Outlets in the U.S. and across the globe on JULY 10th. Read more in the coverage from Variety.
VOLITION’s New York City Premiere was a huge success, playing to packed crowds at the NYC Horror Film Festival! To top it off, the science-fiction thriller took home three top prizes, including the awards for BEST SCIENCE-FICTION FEATURE FILM (to Tony Dean Smith & Ryan W. Smith), BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY (to Byron Kopman), and BEST SOUND DESIGN (to Sharpe Sound, Gregorio Gomez and composer Matthew Rogers)! Congrats to the entire team, and thank you NYC Horror Film Festival for the warm reception.
After a whirlwind week of VOLITION playing in three over-lapping festivals (Whistler Film Festival, Other Worlds Austin, and NYC Horror Film Festival), Director Tony Dean Smith takes home the prestigious Best BC Director Award at Whistler! We couldn’t be more proud! Thank you to Whistler Film Festival and all the others for screening our film to packed crowds. We so appreciate the support! Below is Tony’s acceptance speech from the Whistler Film Festival Award Ceremony.
The 20th Annual Flickers’ Vortex Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror Film Festival wrapped with the annual award ceremony. The Grand Prize Sci-Fi Feature Film award went to Volition directed by our very own, Tony Dean Smith. We’re thrilled to have be awarded this prize and thank the Rhode Island Film Festival (Flickers/Vortex)!
Read more about it here!
What a week it’s been! VOLITION took home TWO awards after its recent run in Los Angeles. VOLITION is now the WINNER of the BEST SCIENCE-FICTION FEATURE FILM AWARD at the 11th Annual Burbank International Film Festival. It is also the WINNER of the BEST SCIENCE-FICTION FEATURE FILM AWARD at the 19th Annual Shriekfest Film Festival. Thank to these two wonderful festivals for the honors!