Directed by Rian Johnson
Released in 2012
Looper is a very good sci-fi movie with a very cool premise. Like Inception, sometimes that premise gets in the way of the story, and like Prometheus, sometimes that story takes one turn too many. But for a film centered on time travel, Looper does its best to remain sober, introducing its made-up rules and paradoxes without obsessing over them. Director and screenwriter Rian Johnson even finds a way to fuse all the fake science with the film’s message and direction. At the very least, it makes for a stunning first act that tapers into a solid but lesser final act upon the introduction of a woman and child (Remember I Am Legend?).
The year is 2074. Time travel is invented and immediately ruled illegal. Naturally, a seedy criminal syndicate manipulates it to kill undesirables. For some reason (DNA tracking?), disposing of bodies is next to impossible in the future, so the target is draped in a hood, strapped with a slate of silver bars (it’s a strange image to describe) and blasted 30 years into the past. In 2044, a “looper” awaits the poor chap to apparate (spellcheck tells me this is not a real word, which makes me sad) out of thin air, at which instant he blasts a hole through the target’s chest with a “blunderbuss” shotgun. It is about as impersonal a murder as one could carry out within such close proximity: Learn French with Rosetta Stone as you wait, listen for the thwap of space-time being breached and pull the trigger before the hit can make a peep.
That is how Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) conducts his business, at least. When not a heartless killing machine, Joe roams the decrepit streets of Kansas City, pumped with normalizing drugs administered through eye drops. He is numb to the world’s poverty and violence, in a daze not unlike Ed Norton’s character in Fight Club. Seth (a reliably flustered Paul Dano) could be considered his friend, but Joe makes a crucial decision that negates even that. The time comes when Joe must face himself — literally. Part of the deal with being a looper is “closing the loop”: unknowingly shooting your future self when the syndicate cuts your contract. The hitman then has 30 years to live in peace, until the gangsters come after you to take you out ... which they already did (time travel is confusing, huh?). Joe’s problem, however, is that his future self (Bruce Willis) appears without a hood, staring him right in the face. Young Joe hesitates, allowing Old Joe to escape.
Johnson wrings this first encounter for more suspense than seems possible, given how this scene serves as the hook for all the movie’s trailers. An economic sequence cuts between a slowly zooming-in shot of an unnerved Young Joe and the rippling vinyl tarp that awaits his next victim. When Old Joe finally materializes, we see him from Young Joe’s distant point of view, followed by an extreme close-up of his eyes and then Young Joe’s eyes. It is filmic storytelling that would make Hitchcock proud (the scene is revisited later with a single, quiet long shot, parodying the earlier tension). A little troubling, however, is the heavy makeup applied on Gordon-Levitt’s lips, eyes and nose, in order to achieve a greater likeness to Willis. The effect is uncanny, in the disconcerting way; I often thought, “Hey, that’s JGL wearing makeup.”
But back to Hitchcock. The crime goons — called “Gat Men,” after the comically oversized revolvers they wield — pursue both Joes after Old Joe gets away, and Looper uses the classic Hitchcock “wrong man accused” trope in regards to Young Joe. But what if the “right” man is the “wrong” man? And what if one person is two different people? The movie sits the two Joe’s across from each other in a diner booth, rivaling the famous Pacino/DeNiro scene from Heat. What would you say to your younger self? Old Joe is downright hostile, scolding Young Joe’s drug addiction and reckless indifference. A sensible path forward would pair the two together, yet Old Joe retreats back into the dark in order to avenge a death, while Young Joe moves toward the light in inverse of Old Joe’s reprehensible actions. Due to some temporal overlap best not overanalyzed, Young Joe can scar or tattoo himself to communicate with his old self; the implications of this loophole are maximized to terrifying effect early in the movie, when an older version of a character literally falls apart while his younger self is tortured (it’s a brilliant scene worthy of your nightmares). The communication between the two Joes plays with (‘pains’ is also valid) your mind and posits life as a constant flux.
Unfortunately, a lot of this magic dissipates in the final 45 minutes, when the subject pivots to Sara (Emily Blunt, surprisingly) and her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon). The two live by themselves in a rural Kansas farmhouse, which Sara fiercely defends with a rock salt shotgun. She also, naturally, serves as a love interest for Young Joe and allows him to spill open his deep-seated torment. The pace slows down during these scenes, which is fine, and Gagnon’s performance as the troubled child never succumbs to (though it may verge on) camp. But the bond between Young and Old Joe ceases to consider the abundance of existential conflicts the script initially flirted with, and Young Joe’s diminishing screen time robs his final decisions of their allotted impact. Instead, the story focuses on the standard “killing baby Hitler” paradox and throws in telekinesis (lifting things with your mind) as an excuse for lame special effects. Johnson works hard to make time travel appear plausible and seems to joke in the beginning that a genetic mutation has granted 10-percent of humans the ability to suspend quarters in mid-air. The subsequent about face — with the expectation for us to take this paranormal ability seriously — contradicts prior expectations and reverts the final act into a capable but far more ordinary film when compared to the preceding brilliance.
A lack of humor could be culpable for these tonal and narrative inconsistencies. Johnson introduces his world’s quirks early and efficiently, but poking fun at their logical gaps could have secured a defense against all but the most myopic sci-fi geeks. Indeed, the film’s funniest joke is also a grim one: When Young Joe tells crime boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) that he’s learning French because he wants to visit France, Abe replies in a monotone, “I’m from the future. You should go to China.” Ok, maybe not wholesome laughs, but Looper could have at least afforded a lace of sarcasm, right? The Gordon-Levitt voiceover is set, the Kansas City streets are caked in crime and cynicism is practically a pre-existing condition. It all sounds like a film noir, which Johnson and Gordon-Levitt exercised in their 2006 hit Brick. Perhaps our era’s rampant flippancy will erode into abject despair by 2044. I’ll arrange for a time warp with the loopers when that day comes.
3.5 Stars Out of 5
This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.