With Looper writer-director Rian Johnson has again proven himself a filmmaker with incredible range and staggering self-assurance. This is his third movie and he seems determined to surpass himself with every outing. Paired again with virtuoso actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (him again !??!?! yes!), Looper is Johnson’s unique vision of the near future, time travel, and gangland assassins. While not expressly about its science fictional elements, Looper uses all of the rich detail and opportunity of its premise to tell an accessible and intelligent science fiction story. Amazingly, Johnson manages to negotiate a balance where the scifi is not allowed to hijack the movie yet is completely necessary for this particular story to work. Not only is it thrilling and cerebral, Looper is an emotional story and packs a surprisingly powerful punch.
Each of Johnson’s movies offers something different for me. Brick is pure brain candy, its main interest is in the intricacy of plot and mystery, the music of language. The Brothers Bloom has those same key elements, but moves into the philosophical landscape of what it is to tell stories at all. Looper strips it all down, showing a restrained and spartan version of Johnson’s voice, and uses that clarity to satisfy on an emotional level more thoroughly than with any of his previous films.
Watching Johnson’s films is a pleasure and a treat. It’s also super exciting as we are literally watching the formulation of a master. Johnson is guy who has the chops to rise above all the other greats and is so humble about this that you can’t help but root for him even if you don’t believe it.
Gordon-Levitt gives the performance of his career, transforming utterly to a mutated younger Bruce Willis before our eyes.
… or at least its lead actor.
No superlative is enough to praise JGL yet again. The makeup is only half the battle, one that is almost off-putting in the totality of its victory. The smaller things, the voice and facial expressions and the way he walks and moves, are all uncanny. You don’t always think “oh hey, Bruce Willis” but you are nonetheless transported by how thorough the performance is. This isn’t just acting, it’s more along the lines of what guys like Daniel Day Lewis are known for.
Looper takes place (mostly) in the year 2044. The world has kind of gone to shit with the streets dangerous and squalid, people living out of tents or broken down vehicles. It seems to be a world derived from an extreme escalation of our current collective financial woes. It’s fun to speculate about the details and backstory, but precious little is revealed. It’s mostly backdrop, including things like a mutation that gives 10% of the population telekinesis. The TK (as they call it) thing does become more important, but the point is that there’s a dedicated degree of world-building going on here and that it’s awesome.
The vision of the future here is not dissimilar from Children of Men. The movie even stops to make jokes about the continuum of technology and fashion.
In the year 2044, there’s a criminal syndicate in Kansas City run by Abe (Jeff Daniels). Their primary purpose is to take care of executions and body disposals for one of the powerful crime syndicates of the future. In 2070, time travel gets invented and outlawed. The only people willing to risk using it are the gangsters who need to do clean assassinations, something that is apparently almost impossible in the future. Again, it’s fun to speculate that this is a result of rampant surveillance application, but the movie doesn’t come out and say that. Young Joe is a Looper, one of the young men who go to depopulated areas and wait for a human being to be transported to them. They kill them with a big primitive-looking gun called a blunderbuss, an inaccurate weapon that is nonetheless completely deadly within 15 yards. Loopers are paid in silver bars which are transported back to them along with their victims. Eventually, one of the masked men they execute will be their future selves, at which point they are paid out a 30 year retirement fund in gold bars and left to go their way. This is called “closing the Loop”. Loopers make this deal knowing full well that they may end up having to kill themselves. At the time we meet Young Joe, loops are being closed very quickly and there are rumors of a powerful new boss in the future, dubbed The Rainmaker, who is responsible.
One of the dangers in being a Looper is in somehow recognizing your future self and hesitating to kill them. Young Joe experiences this second hand through his friend Seth (Paul Dano) and then, of course, first hand with Old Joe (Bruce Willis). Not killing your future self has the potential to cause all kinds of timeline problems, this is called letting your Loop run. Looper is full of small affectations like this jargon, just another facet of the thorough but unassuming world-building in the film.
This is such a great scene.
Without summarizing more than I always seem to, Old Joe (Bruce Willis) proves to be more than match for YJ and they begin a cat and mouse game as YJ tries to fix his fugitive status and avoid suffering Seth’s fate. As the two exchange blows, verbal and physical, and wind up helping and hindering each other, it becomes clear that Looper‘s theme is how our pasts can shape our futures. The idea of a road forward, one that can easily “go bad”, is mentioned a few times in the movie. Of course most peoples’ lives aren’t so simple that you can break the journey down to any one defining moment, but we can still relate to the idea. Looper is all about those kinds of defining moments.
The crucial one for YJ was when Abe first put a blunderbuss in his hands, an act that saved his life when he was a young vagrant kid on a path to sure self-destruction. Being a Looper gives YJ identity and purpose, but he is also self-absorbed and still has a destructive streak. Agreeing to a job that guarantees your death after 30 or so years is one thing, being a junkie is another and Young Joe is both. Abe’s interest in YJ is repaid in beautiful irony after OJ shows up at the Gat-men headquarters guns blazing. A defining moment comes full circle.
Not enough P90s in the movies. Thank you, Rian Johnson.
The closest cinematic parent to Looper is Terminator. I mean that in the best possible way. With Looper, Johnson has married Twelve Monkeys with Terminator and scrambled into it his own color palette and vision. The lingering flavors of these other time travel movies never rises above reward for those who’ve seen them. It’s never distracting, just a thing about the movie that might help describe its tone and some of the plot influences it refurbishes. It establishes Looper on a spectrum of movies in order to establish the place from where it will deconstruct them.
The Terminator thing comes from Old Joe’s mission: to kill the Rainmaker before he can grow up to close all the Loops. To do this, OJ has to kill three kids, all of whom could be The Rainmaker. Meanwhile, YJ’s sole interest remains killing his future self in hopes of getting back to his life. For the second half of the movie, he waits it out with Sarah (Emily Blunt) and Cid (Pierce Gagnon, who kills it) on their sugarcane farm. Cid is one of the kids who could be the Rainmaker. We figure out pretty quickly that he is. A brilliant kid with a few psychological issues and a powerhouse version of the TK mutation, Cid is the kind of character who should freak you out too much to sympathize with him. Little Gagnon somehow delivers the surprise performance of the movie, always maintaining our curiosity and sympathy even as he makes poor Garret Dillahunt explode. There are a couple of scenes where Gagnon dragged tears into my eyes and lumps into my throat as surely as if he had done so with his mind powers.
Cid and the full extent of the telekinetic element of the movie were well-kept secrets.
The first half of Looper (oops, I’m summarizing out of sequence!) is firmly entrenched in YoungJoe’s life and how he goes from where we meet him to the version of him that Bruce Willis plays. There’s a great montage that skims over the years between 2044 and 2074 where we find out that Joe eventually gets his life together and cleans up. He finds a nice Chinese woman to settle down with but she gets killed and everything goes to hell when the Gat-men of 2074 come calling. Old Joe’s goals are personal and he is willing to be morally compromised to accomplish them. You’re never rooting for him to kill kids or shit like that, but you always understand the moral position and justifications of every character in the movie. This is one of its great strengths, something that comes from the writing, and is why it can have so many surprising emotional payoffs.
Though we understand OJ’s motives, we’re never expected to care much about his future life. This is because that life is a tentative possibility as the time travel begins to change things. In real time, what happens to YJ changes OJ’s body and memories, putting him in a state of cloudy awareness of his own life until the decision point, where Young Joe’s actions become Old Joe’s memories. It puts him at a unique advantage while they’re trying to outmaneuver each other and the movie executes this tricky concept beautifully.
A little less beautiful are the labyrinthine implications of Looper‘s take on time travel. The movie addresses this in the cafe scene between Joes. In a moment where it feels like the movie is talking to its audience, a moment wisely played for humor, OJ waves off the ridiculous complications of time travel in order to forge ahead. This is symbolic for what Johnson is doing with the movie: rather than telling a story about time travel, he’s telling a story with time travel and it makes more sense then to just brush the prickly shit aside in order to get on with the story. A lot of people are going to find this problematic as the rules about time travel are mostly subject to on-the-fly inference. If you think about how it works, it should hold together and even yield some interesting implications that may be beyond the scope of the movie as we see it. In short, the movie doesn’t hold your hand and draw you diagrams nor does it pretend time travel is simple to get around paradoxes. Instead, it deals with pretty much every one of the “big problems” with time travel that other movies are entirely built around, and it does so with an honesty about how murky and mind-numbing that shit is. Thus, Johnson takes what many armchair scientists will want to think of as a weakness and turns it into another strength.
Daniels is oddly affable and fatherly while exuding an almost regretful menace. He reminded me of Albert Brooks in Drive actually.
Some people started obsessing and chafing over the time travel stuff before the movie even came out. The bitching was two-pronged: on one hand, the complaints that the idea of time travel to get rid of bodies makes no sense. On the other, the complaints that time travel is stupid/impossible in the first place. This is the kind of raging bullshit the internet has unfortunately provided a voice for. I’d say, and it should be obvious, that you need to ignore all this shit. The merits of time travel as a plot device don’t matter provided that the plot device is internally consistent with clear, inferrable rules that the story doesn’t violate (unless part of the point is violating them). I mean, no one complains that Back to the Future has time travel via DeLorian even though that’s how it sounds. No one complains about the science in The Avengers because it doesn’t fucking matter. Unfortunately, serious science fiction is always subject to the superiority complexes of people who think they are smarter than the writers and so on that make the stories.
Like the time travel, the telekinesis is a plot device. It doesn’t matter what mutation caused it or how, it’s just a fact of the world and the story progresses accordingly. If I can refer to Children of Men once more, it’s exactly the same as how people stopped being able to have babies vs. how Key is able to get pregnant. The movie doesn’t care, there’s a story to tell. The movie doesn’t care because while the characters do, they aren’t in a position to know. Over-explaining plot devices is a huge problem in fiction and it is immensely to Johnson’s credit that he avoided it when it must have been so fucking tempting a trap to fall into.
Anyways, telekinesis is cool.
While ostensibly an action movie, it should be noted that Looper does its violence less with flourishes, choreography or “cool” and more with, well, violence. The gunfights are visceral and sudden, more like Scorsese than Wachowskis. While this is just fine, it did surprise me. I expected more “hero moments” I guess, but since this is not a movie about heroes, it’s appropriate that the action was done with a bit more grit and matter of factness than I expected.
The flashiest shots and moves of the movie’s action, stuff like this:
Take place in a montage. All the sustained stuff has its feet firmly planted on the ground. Regardless, it solidifies Johnson as a capable action director. If he wanted, he could make a balls-out action movie and it would probably sing.
Something else that goes against expectations in order to go a bit beyond them is the romance subplot. Old Joe’s marriage isn’t given much screen-time. The movie is mostly about Young Joe and this is because, thematically, it’s really about seeing the way ahead and making a different decision if that way ahead is bad. The romantic subplot, then, is between Young Joe and Sarah. Sarah is a tough, capable woman who is raising Cid alone and away from the city where she lived the hard life and where Cid’s abilities would pose problems for them. She’s the kind of character you only notice is exactly the right kind of female character because you’re so unused to seeing them. I’ve seen this role before, in Jean-Claude Van Damme movies ffs, and somehow Johnson and Blunt manage to rise above the damsel cliche with more than just tough talk and a shotgun. Sarah makes her own decisions and calls her own shots, when she fucks Joe it’s cuz she wants to. It’s for all the usual reasons, mutual respect and his protectiveness and bond with her son, etc but it’s also cuz she wants to. On Joe’s end, Sarah bears a serious resemblance to Suzie (Piper Perabo), a hooker with kid, who he might be in love with. I think a lot of people miss how Joe’s relationship with Suzie dovetails both with Sarah and Cid and what Old Joe does when he crosses Suzie’s path. On top of that, Joe has mother issues. His mom abandoned him and he seems to gravitate toward dedicated mothers (YJ) or women who will take care of him (OJ).
This stuff means that the romance, brief as it is, wasn’t just obligatory and tacked on because good looking white people. There is thought behind it from Johnson and pathos behind it from his characters/actors. It’s the kind of stuff that makes more sense the more you think about it, rather than less.
The romance addresses and shatters action movie damsel conventions, much as Looper defies the conventions of action scifi.
All the twists in approach aside, it’s not like Johnson was setting out to reinvent a subgenre. Still, he has incidentally pulled that off. People won’t be able to talk about time travel movies without talking about Looper. It’s one of the movies of 2012 but also among the best time travel movies ever made, not because it’s so damn time travely but because it’s so damn good. I urge you to go see it.
I’m going to see it twice. Once for Young Evan and once for Old Evan.