Watched Oct 02, 2012
Jeremy Wilson’s review:
Looper is special. Actually, it's S-P-E-C-I-A-L.
It took me both 6 seconds and 6 days to figure that out. I saw it, thought about it every few hours for the next five days, then saw it again. I had to. Rian Johnson's time-travel yarn practically demands it. This is the third film from Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) and it is clearly his best. Where before the director was in the early stages of his professional career and finding his feet with impressive, if imperfect, films that showed an abundance of style and cinematic knowledge, Johnson now enters his prime as a filmmaker and storyteller. And if the rest of his career is anything like Looper, then we're all in for some really, really strong films.
Looper is about Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a “looper” for the mob of the future, who kills and discards the bodies of people sent back in time. Time travel is illegal in the future (2074), used only by the mob as a clean and effective way of offing people. Doing this through time travel is necessitated by strict tracking technologies that haven't been implemented in Joe's time (time travel hasn't technically been discovered yet either). Then, as now, the world has become a dystopia, and while the loopers are doing pretty well, their fellow citizens are not so fortunate, as vagrants run amok and children are orphaned to live on the streets and grow into petty criminals. When a new terrorist crime lord rises in the future, he begins “closing loops,” essentially terminating the contracts of the loopers. This is done when the older version of the looper is sent back to be terminated by their younger self. Since even the mob is afraid of time travel, this limits the causality loop and leaves everything a bit cleaner than it otherwise could be. Thus when a young looper kills their older self (they don't know it at the time, as victims are hooded), it “closes the loop” and gives the looper a big gold payday and another thirty years to enjoy as they will. However, things start to go haywire in our story when Joe is brought face-to-face with his older self (played by Bruce Willis) and when Old Joe escapes, everyone goes gunning for the both of them.
There is so much to like with Looper that it can be hard to pick out what are its real standout features. It has a superb cast led by one of the best actors out there, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as well as featuring Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Jeff Daniels, Piper Perabo, Noah Segan and youngster Pierce Gagnon. Its story is tight and compelling, not too big or messy – something which afflicts far too many modern science fiction stories. Its production design is simple yet striking, seemingly perfect in its limited scope and timeless in a believable way that will work just as well in future viewings. But perhaps what is best about Looper is that, even with the timey-wimey stuff and pointed, piercing violence, it is at heart, a story about characters.
It is obvious that the characters are what matter most to Johnson and in Looper they are what are most memorable and haunting. Nearly every character in the film is conflicted and damaged and the time travel element perfectly fits the narrative, as time itself plays its part beyond the gimmick; Looper is about many things, including the moments that makes us who we are and who we become. Young Joe is a good-looking, in-his-prime contract killer but remains a lonely junkie and dreams of his life beyond being a looper. Old Joe is cleaned up and has known love, but when that is taken from him, he resorts to monstrous measures to try and change time itself for him and his murdered wife. Sara was a selfish party girl who abandoned her child and is now forced to atone for those previous sins and raise an extraordinary son who remembers what happened and continues to distrust her.
You get a real sense of these main characters, what their motivations are and what they're willing to do to ensure they get what they want. Johnson also brilliantly subverts our expectations as the movie progresses, changing the game and forcing us to reevaluate these characters as we watch. There are also a vast array of compelling secondary characters that populate Johnson's film, each adding to not only the world but also contributing to the central characters' stories: Suzie (Piper Perabo), the strictly-business stripper/hooker who Young Joe spends his time with; Cid (Pierce Gagnon), Sara's young son who is extraordinarily smart yet harbors a huge power (and anger) within him; Abe (Jeff Daniels), the small-time gangster sent back in time to run the loopers and who essentially serves as Joe's and other loopers and Gat Men's) Fagin-like father-figure; and a superb group of fellow loopers played by Paul Dano, Garrett Dillahunt and Noah Segan, all of whom play important roles in Looper.
Johnson smartly keeps a tight grip on his film, never letting it slide into clichés or sprawl into a messy, incomprehensible affair. It surprises at every turn and always feels like it has purpose behind every scene, every character and every detail. Those details are even more impressive on multiple viewings, allowing us to appreciate something as small as the waitress Beatrix, a minor character played by Tracie Thomas. Not only is she a symbol for Joe's desire to travel and the hopes he has for his post-Looper future (“Beatrix” is a Latin name meaning “voyager” or “traveller”) but also acts as a clever way for Young Joe to communicate with Old Joe. Another Johnson touch that is appreciated is his aversion to getting too caught up in the mechanics of the time travel gimmick. With just one scene in a diner between the two versions of Joe, Johnson dismisses the idea that you need complicated charts to try and keep track of it all. Most time travel stories get caught trying to explain every detail, answer every question and close every logical loophole. This usually comes in the form of constant exposition, oftentimes breaking the flow of the action or drama and attempts to squeeze every bit of mystery or self-realization out of the filmgoing experience.
Blessedly, Looper's time travel mechanic is fairly simple to follow, but also has enough depth to make you think it through and get satisfaction and enjoyment in trying to put it all together. It all makes sense (relatively speaking) and the tightness of his script is largely responsible for that. Johnson creates a great balance; he doesn't feel the need to hold your hand and explain every single element, but still gives you enough to go on to figure it out on your own (not to mention numerous spoiler-filled interviews and discussions with various outlets). The script is smart, slick and mature in a way that too few science fiction films are nowadays. It cares less for exposition and more for the story it is telling. Doing that allows it to break away from the pack and stand out among other science fiction films.
In addition to the quality of the written characters, the performances in the film are equally good. The onus of the JGL-Willis pairing falls mostly on Gordon-Levitt, who is put into the makeup chair and is at his usual high level. They are both playing each other to a degree, although Gordon-Levitt is playing more of Willis than the other way around. Willis plays his usual character and while no one would consider him the greatest thespian of his generation, Willis has always been an underrated performer, much, much better than some of his Expendables-type contemporaries. Willis has a great sly sense of humor and a screen presence that few can actually match (both he and JGL are great to watch in their one-on-one diner scene). There is a great weariness and pain to Old Joe that Willis conveys well, especially as the film progresses. Some have stated that the makeup to Joseph Gordon-Levitt was too distracting – to the point that it had an effect on their enjoyment of the film. That wasn't a problem for me and it comes off mostly as nitpicking and exaggeration. The makeup is actually pretty understated, especially compared to other recent examples such as Nicole Kidman in The Hours, Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer in J. Edgar, and Guy Pearce in Prometheus.
Blunt is really strong as well as a cane farmer on the outskirts of Kansas City, although her southern-ish accent does seemingly wander at times. When Blunt arrives, she instills a different aspect to the story, which takes Looper in a totally different direction than you would expect. Here, in the shell of a sci-fi action thriller, Johnson gears down the pace and we see the filmmaker's vision and endgame begin to blossom. Again, Johnson's script is vital to this, but without Blunt or the unbelievable work of youngster Pierce Gagnon, it wouldn't work. Another standout in the cast is Noah Segan as Kid Blue, protégé to Daniels' Abe and rival/adversary to Joe. Kid Blue is one of Abe's personal “Gat Men” that help him keep power and oversee the loopers. Segan delivers a heartbreaking portrayal of a pathetic petty criminal who is desperate to gain the respect of Abe, but can't help get in his own way. There are a lot of pathetic people in Looper, none moreso than Kid Blue, a perfect representation of what happens when we give a gun to an idiot.
Speaking of guns, they are a fascinating element of the film, seeing as nearly every character has one. Instead of going down the typical sci-fi route and making the impractical, yet awesome futuristic weaponry that shoots lasers we usually see, Johnson and company have crafted utterly practical guns and almost standard-looking designs incorporating items off the scrap heap. The blunderbluss used by the loopers looks like a giant pipe. The method of time travel almost looks like an oversized washer. Even when Johnson does present something more futuristic looking, such as Young Joe's safe or Seth's new motorbike, they are always tempered. Joe's safe is filled with bars of silver (how old-school) and Seth's bike breaks down almost instantly. The shiny stuff isn't what Looper or Johnson are interested in, even though the director obviously has an abundance of style and flair in his filmmaking.
There is a “magical” element to Looper (other than time travel) but it's not really found in the physical setting. It is the “TK” gene that around 10% of the population has and gives them the power to control things with their minds. However, even then it is presented as essentially just a parlor trick, a way for guys and girls to impress others by floating quarters. Like so much of what these characters have, it is a status symbol in a society that is decaying. It also serves as a sly commentary on modern filmmaking in the age of the blockbuster and dazzling CG. If you didn't know what Johnson was about before, you know then; this is a filmmaker who doesn't simply want to make just another science fiction film full of bells and whistles, gimmicks and tricks. Yes, some of that is part of the story, but ultimately it comes down to characters, relationships and individuals' choices and actions that not only drive the narrative, but keep you engaged and thinking about it for hours, days, weeks and years to come. It is an extraordinary restraint on the part of the director, especially in an era of big-budget spectacles, with their wall-to-wall special effects and relentless action. When that "TK" does begin to play a bigger part as the film progresses, it becomes vitally important and is a huge revelation that fits perfectly with what we've seen before. When it becomes important, you actually feel it is important and not simply showing off. In fact, Johnson reinforces that by showing what that power is actually capable of in horrifying, frightening terms.
Don't be mistaken though; this isn't just a great character study. There is plenty of memorable action in Looper. Instead of being wall-to-wall, it's more pointed and judicious in its use. As a result, it's more powerful. I would be remiss if I named specific sequences, since I'd rather you see them for the first time without being spoiled or alerted to what they are. Needless to say, it's horrific at times, reminiscent more of the violence of Drive rather than the PG-13 action of Total Recall or the shower of bullets from Dredd. Looper is R for a reason and it definitely earns it.
There are many ways to look at a film and try to evaluate it. The hardest part is that critics are constantly asked to assign fixed numerical values to subjective art and entertainment. Nearly all critics will tell you that the number of stars or grade doesn't really matter, that what matters is the review itself. I'm giving Looper a 10, not simply because it's a great film. There are plenty of those. No, for me a “10” is a movie that is not simply great, but has a quality that will stand the test of time. It's the kind of film we'll look back on 10, 25, 50 years from now and point to as a landmark film, something special that influenced not only the medium in its own time, but will serve as a marker for future generations of filmmakers and critics.
Looper is special. Not just because it's a great time travel movie. It's special because it's a great time travel movie that also serves as an infinitely interesting and powerful rumination on the dynamic between young and old, destiny and fate, living in the present, looking to the future, yet holding on to the past, nature versus nurture as well as the role and importance of parenting. It's special because I can't imagine having a discussion – now or in the future – where Looper isn't mentioned alongside the great science fiction films. The conclusion of the film brings it home and raises the film in the process. It makes perfect sense, though we don't see it coming, and it packs as powerful a punch as any finale you're likely to see. When Rian Johnson finally closes his own cinematic loop, you are left breathless and exhilarated, stunned into the realization you've seen not just something great, but something special. We'll be watching, debating and dissecting Looper for years and decades to come. It deserves nothing less.