Needle in a Timestack: Lonely Are the Pre-Determined, by Dayne Linford
Time and intimacy are two of the great, opposing pleasures of film, wrapped up in each other like quarreling lovers. Neither the beautiful, monumental face close enough to touch, nor the singular, brief moment arrested forever, will last when the lights go up, but they still duke it out for preeminence. Different films utilize these pleasures in their own way, from the long, edenic gaze of a romance to the flashing, whizz bang of three different angles on the same event in a time travel film. One etches the moment in memory, the other says the moment is immaterial, so it makes sense that a time travel romance would struggle to reconcile these differing needs. Needle in a Timestack nonetheless makes the attempt, from the start as a movie deeply at odds with itself, a soulmate love story navigating the inherent instability of a shifting, capricious universe.
Leslie Odom Jr. stars as Nick, an architect whose primary personality trait is a profound, perpetual anxiety driven by the fact that his world is unstuck from time. Periodically, tidal waves of time, called “shifts,” sweep through the world, altering it in ways subtle and immense, the result of some reality-altering shenanigan conducted by rich people on paid-for jaunts in the distant or immediate past. One of these, Tommy (Orlando Bloom), former friend and ex-husband of Nick’s wife, Janine (Cynthia Erivo), previously failed in using time travel to regain his lost marriage. Now, each shift throws Nick into a near panic attack around the fear that Tommy has once again attempted to take Janine back. He fixates on details, whether their cat was actually a dog, his suspicion and paranoia pitting him against Janine and threatening their relationship. His fears are suddenly vitiated, however, when a massive time tsunami appears to swallow the world and splits them back to previous lovers, her with Tommy, him with ex-girlfriend Alex (Frieda Pinto).
A new technology utilized as a plaything by the wealthy with astounding consequences for everyone else is an extremely persuasive and provocative idea. Rendered here on a very intimate scale around Nick’s irrepressible pursuit of Janine, however, it becomes merely a stand-in for romantic ennui, a continually recurring dissatisfaction, cast into the stars, apparently fixed against the winds of time. In any universe similar to our own, Nick’s perception of the fragility of his carefully controlled, extremely lucky life is accurate, regardless of evil romantic rivals, but the film won’t allow alternatives without the prettiest of possible homes, wives, and lives. His sense of diminishment might drive him to sleep alone on the couch, but the home he now shares with Alex is an impeccably furnished architectural marvel. The different domiciles of each life are very different in look and feel, but not in luxury, and in the end, though everyone talks about how expensive time travelling is, several different characters make use of it. A similar elision occurs around race, which is central otherwise to writer/director John Ridley’s CV, but here is mostly absorbed by the single most diverse friend group found on the East Coast. There’s something to the fact that Nick’s marriage to a black woman is threatened by her white former lover, but all anyone can talk about is Tommy’s money, which must be vast to stand out in this crowd. Culminating in a tearful scene where Nick expresses that no one ever resented Tommy for his wealth, but “just wanted you to be happy”, these dull platitudes are repeated so often as to take on a recursive profundity.
Typically in broad strokes, the film makes a motif of this repetition, which, with Odom’s deft and powerful performance, lends a surprising freshness to old conflicts. Many movie leads have breathlessly voiced the conviction that their love passes the bounds of time, but few focus on the real frailty of that insistence. In an early confrontation scene, Tommy expounds on the relativism of romantic lives, fractured into the multiverse, where each settled moment is a moment lost – if you’re with Janine, someone else cannot be. Needle takes this question seriously, mostly dispensing with easy answers as to Tommy’s villainy or Nick’s star-crossed romance. All of Nick’s convictions and presuppositions are questioned in turn, as he settles happily into a life with Alex and comes to realize Tommy isn’t the mastermind he’d envisioned. This sequence is by far the most complex and satisfying of the film, a little respite for everyone but Janine, a romantic lead in absentia only. This absence saps at the pull of their predestined reunification, especially during long romance scenes demonstrating Odom and Pinto’s competing chemistry. Soon enough, however, Nick’s omnipresent anxiety reappears and he begins a more active path in righting the wrong timeline in which he thinks he’s trapped.
This reversal, not least for a lack of motivation, can’t stave off the perennial question of romantic predetermination, the movie mainstay of Love Meant To Be. Nick may feel the pull of low-key destiny, but a universal purpose-driven impetus feels especially hollow after we’ve spent nearly an hour in a lovely, alternate life. Unfortunately, Ridley’s commendable decision to avoid easy answers does not allow for ambiguity at the end, resulting in a series of rather convoluted events and justifications, some by Nick, some by the film itself. This is especially striking because Needle is an exceptionally lonely film as a whole. The typical shot, reverse shot pattern of cinematic conversation is here eschewed for a single long shot of one participant, their emotions playing across their features in response to the unseen partner, their loneliness underscored by this explicit denial of community and shared emotional relationships. Over and over again, editing and framing tell us that these people are all very alone, either not looking at each other in the center of a wide, empty frame, or isolated in close up, as if trapped behind compositional walls. As Nick’s apparent last possible chance at happiness plays out before us, it feels so insubstantial. If this is an argument for a teleological romantic universe, it’s a pretty flimsy one. But maybe a romance should only survive against literally all odds.
Ultimately, Needle in a Timestack is only occasionally rewarding. An ostensible romance, it does its best work when developing the profound existential loneliness of each character in turn, but, caught between competing impulses, is unable to drive that through to a complete thought. This discontinuous solitude is very reflective of our current moment, not least due to a physical, biological reality exacerbated by the foolishness of those in power. However, as an evocation of what it means to be human now or elsewhere, very few of us get to work out all the wrinkles in beautiful, spacious homes with no questions about the next meal, let alone a nagging all-purpose conviction as to the rightness or wrongness of individual relationships. If you’re looking for a little intimacy or a little play with time, you’ll find some here, but the biggest impression is a powerful isolation. You might be able to shake it, but the film does not.