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Guy walks into a bar.

It’s a dark and dingy dive where, in a voice cured in cigarette smoke and marinated in whiskey, this fellow informs the bartender he has a tale to tell. It is, he says, a hard-luck story to end all hard-luck stories. In the half-light the bartender leans in, all ears, and hears:

“When I was a little girl …”

And in the background, on the jukebox, someone is singing “I’m My Own Grandpaw!”

So starts “Predestination.”

It’s a picture where sex reassignment meets temporal displacement in a setting, with its shadows and smoke, that is deeply, deeply noir.

From the ’50s, “Predestination” originated in the short story “—All You Zombies—”by the late sci-fi master Robert Heinlein. No zombies here though, but rather a time-travel story that is deeply strange and genuinely heartbreaking.

Faithfully adapted by Michael and Peter Spierig, two Australian filmmaking brothers from whom I expect great things in the future, this richly imaginative picture locates its characters in a world of pain regardless of what year — be it 1945 or 1963 or 1975 or 1992 — they find themselves in that world.

In a long opening flashback sequence, the tale­teller, named John at first and later — actually, earlier; time travel can be so confusing — Jane, tells of his/her sad life: abandoned in infancy, seduced, impregnated and abandoned in young adulthood, her baby then kidnapped. And throughout it all she’s achingly alone.

In this corkscrew concoction, the taleteller (played as both male and female by Australian actress Sarah Snook in a revelatory performance of mind-bending intricacy and astonishing power) is taken on a journey through time by the bartender, who is in fact an operative in something called the Temporal Bureau. Ably played by Ethan Hawke, he’s got an agenda and a connection to John/Jane of particular and peculiar intimacy.

The gender-shifting aspect of the story is tightly entwined with the time-travel element, with each dependent on the other in ways that ultimately amaze.

Remember that song on the juke? “I’m My Own Grandpaw!” It’s a clue. It’s a key. It’s a jumping-off point and a destination.

As for “Predestination,” despite its low budget and its lack of big stars, it’s a pretty amazing piece of work.

Soren Andersen: