Time-Traveling Action Film is Daring and Measured

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Writer-director Rian Johnson’s Looper is one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen in recent memory, and more than delivered upon both its genre premise and what I hoped would be its thematic approach. It’s daring and measured, both playing to and subverting the expectations of its audience.

I avoided every piece of marketing for the film before seeing it: I knew it concerned time-traveling hit men, and that its two leads, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, played the same character, but that was it. The news that Johnson was directing this type of picture was enough of a draw for me, and I didn’t feel the need to convince myself further and risk spoiling the experience.

His feature films, the whip-smart neo-noir high school drama Brick (also starring Gordon-Levitt), and the clever and moving The Brothers Bloom, as well as some excellent work for episodes of Terriers and Breaking Bad, had established a sense of trust that he would deliver the goods. This preface full of statements about my own response to the film is a disclaimer to say one thing: Looper is excellent, and there is no real way for me to write on it substantially without ruining its surprises, so it might be best if you went to see it, then came back and read this.

So now then. (If you are in fact reading this before seeing the film, I’ll try to keep spoilers vague.)

In the year 2044, somewhere in Kansas, Joe (Gordon-Levitt) cycles through his routines, reliving the same damaging and unfulfilling experiences. He commutes between the dystopian big city, where he lives what there is of the high life, and the stretch of country where he goes after work to take his mind off things by practicing his French with a diner waitress. His work is in a small patch of land in a field, exterminating people who appear at a designated time, sent back from 30 years in the future: a method of time travel exists in the future, but is solely controlled by the mob, who use it to dispatch people without a trace. The voiceover from Joe in these introductory sequences felt unnecessary (but not distracting), as the scenes basically explain everything, and there is little narration in the rest of the film, but it does lend a noir aspect to the storyline, and arguably it shows how self-involved Joe is.

There’s a catch to all this, of course, aside from the immorality and illegality of it all. Joe’s colleagues, fellow “loopers,” are frequently asked to take out their future selves, so much so that this is known as “closing the loop.” There’s a big payday involved and a release from their contract, but then there’s potentially 30 years they have still to live knowing that they have signed their own death warrant. This doesn’t always work as planned.

When Joe confronts his older self (Willis), it’s not that “things go wrong,” it’s that things have been wrong and that this is a natural culmination of those choices. As entertaining and interesting as Looper is in the set-up, it really comes into its own when “Old Joe” shows up, and the story is taken somewhere completely unexpected. (From here on I’ll use the actors’ names to avoid more confusion.) There’s a Kafkaesque fatalism to the character that Gordon-Levitt and Willis each try to overcome, exploiting their respective resources and knowledge.

As Gordon-Levitt knows all too well, his 2044 local mob boss Abe (a weary but frightening Jeff Daniels) keeps his men in line, or brutally takes care of them in the here-and-now. After Willis briefly escapes his fate – setting up some great action sequences for both iterations of the character – Gordon-Levitt has reason to run, but he inevitably has to meet Willis again, and here Willis warns him of his future, and explains that he plans to protect it by any means necessary.

Johnson’s decision to keep the specifics of the narrative ambiguous is smart, and this deliberate choice – borne out in visual motifs beyond dialogue from Willis and Daniels, such as cigarette smoke and the cream-filled coffee that Gordon-Levitt regularly drinks – evokes not only the diegetic nature of the time travel conceit, but of the characters’ mindsets and moralities.

The rest of the review is more spoiler-specific, but doesn’t ruin some of the bigger surprises – nothing that wasn’t in the official trailer.

Looper branches off into a new storyline, into what is actually its main plot: Willis attempts to hunt down the person responsible for sending all the loopers back from 2074, while Gordon-Levitt tries to simultaneously hide out – he’s still indebted to Abe – and stake out one of three possible destinations for Willis, a remote farmhouse owned by a tenacious single mother, Sara (Emily Blunt).

Blunt gives one of the best supporting performances of the year, as does young Pierce Gagnon as her son, Cid. This latter half of the film is Johnson’s biggest gamble, as it not only uproots the audience from the action-oriented futuristic settings and ask us to trust in a tenuous relationship between Gordon-Levitt and Blunt, something nearly out of a period romance, but it subverts the anticipated showcase for Willis by having him pursue truly shocking means.

These chances and mash-ups of genres worked for me, because Johnson demonstrates clear control in how he establishes characters and their motivations, as well as determining the look of the film.

The practical and computer effects appear seamless, and the production design (by Ed Verreaux) portrays an imaginative and realistic 2044. In addition, the ways Johnson uses subdued space and lighting (with director of photography Steve Yedlin) amidst flashier action sequences, and the way he controls pacing and juxtapositions in a tricky narrative (with editor Bob Duscay), reveal that he has grown as a filmmaker.

Johnson has made both a Trojan horse and gear-shift of a movie: a science-fiction action thriller that is really a character study and a thematically rich treatise on certain tendencies in man.

Ultimately, Looper is not only about the matters immediately pertinent to the Joe character(s) – mistakes, regrets, character traits/flaws, etc. – but about determinism, the shackles of socioeconomic circumstances and, most poignantly, patterns of aggression. It suggests how those without guidance can stray so far, but that those who pay attention to structure and care can succeed in changing their fate.