Future (Bruce Willis) meets present (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in Rian Johnson’s Looper

I’m sure a smarter person than me could figure out how Looper was going to work itself out well in advance while also picking apart the logic of the various story elements, but the wonderful thing about this surprisingly moving new sci-fi time travel flick is that it satisfyingly manages to keep its flaming narrative machetes in the air without ever taking its eye off the things that really matter: emotional and thematic depth. Christopher Nolan should lie awake at night wishing his empty puzzle box of a movie Inception had half the gut-level resonance of this particular puzzle box from writer/director Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom).

That’s not to say Looper starts out smoothly. The first chunk of it is a lot of exposition about how the near-future world of 2044 works. It’s all necessary, but it’s not very interesting and for awhile I started to worry that there was no there there. Basically, criminals from an even further future where time travel is possible send people they want disposed of back to 2044 where a group of hit men known as Loopers are waiting to kill and dispose of them… The idea is that it’s easier to dispose of a body in the “now” where that body technically doesn’t exist yet anyway. It’s an interesting conceit as far as it goes, but the world itself Johnson has created is kind of ugly and uninteresting. Plus, no amount of French language lessons or old blues records can ever really get you past the fact that lead character Joe (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is nothing more than a murdering asshole. Things change, however, and Looper really starts to cook when Joe’s older self (played by Bruce Willis) is sent back in time to be killed by his younger self only to escape and run amok on some mysterious personal mission.

This idea of old vs. young and memory vs. possible future is enough thematically to carry the movie, but then Joe (now on the run because letting your future self get away is frowned upon) meets Sara (played by Emily Blunt) a single mom who jealously protects her son Cid. Suddenly, a whole other parent vs. child maternal element is thrown into the mix and the film finally starts to fire on all cylinders before building up to a perfect conclusion.

Cid, by the way, is probably my favorite sci-fi kid since Barry from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He’s preternaturally intelligent without being annoyingly precocious and he’s got a creepy intensity that makes him unpredictable. You never know whether he’s going to wind up a force for good or a force for evil. You can never tell if kid actors will grow up into solid adult actors, but Pierce Gagnon for now is terrific.

As far as the adults go, Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives good Bruce Willis, but it’s almost too careful and studied and the prosthetics used to make his nose and lips more Willis-like are a little distracting, especially when we know how the actor is supposed to look. Blunt is also terrific as the determined, tough talking mother protector (the best such character since Ripley in Aliens). Also excellent is Jeff Daniels, sort of the puppet master from the future who happens to be pulling Joe’s strings and who seems to have the biggest stake in finding and killing Joe, either the young or the old version. As Old Joe meanwhile, Willis turns in a weary, quiet, wonderful performance. When he keeps wasting his time in gaudy nonsense like Expendables 2, it’s easy to forget what a terrific actor Willis has been over the years, but you’re quickly reminded of it here. There’s a scene where Old Joe and Young Joe confront each other in a diner with the former trying to knock some sense into the latter (who wouldn’t want to go back in time and smack their younger selves upside the head to get them from doing something stupid?) and Willis plays it with the perfect mix of anger and a certain bewilderment at meeting the man he once was in the flesh. It’s a subtle, lovely piece of work.

Time travel stories in general always run the risk of coming back to bite themselves on the ass. There’s often some logical inconsistency that unravels the whole conceit the closer you look at it. Looper for the most part keeps the details vague enough that it manages to keep things plausible while explaining only what needs to be explained in order to move the story along. The reason it ultimately works so cleanly though is that the time travel concept isn’t just a fancy gimmick. It’s inextricably intertwined with the themes and moods of the movie. Johnson is less interested in the clockwork than in the time it keeps and he only ever gets bogged down in the details in the very early going. Once his story starts hitting its emotional beats, he gives the film over to them and they carry the day.

Johnson’s promising first film Brick suffered mightily from an excess of affectation. It was sharp, but wound up choking itself to death on its own cleverness. His second film The Brothers Bloom was such a self-satisfied and irritating misfire it seemed like maybe Johnson’s earlier near-success was just a fluke. Looper however is the work of a much more mature filmmaker. He’s still got the talent and the confidence and the vision, but he’s gotten the showing off part out of his system. He’s telling a story from the heart and he has the good sense to get out of the way and just let that beautiful story shine through. Looper works as pure sci-fi popcorn, but it also connects on a much deeper, more personal level. Altogether, it’s a very nearly perfect movie.

12 Responses to “Looper (2012)”

  1. Yep, eat your heart out Chris Nolan! Ha! i’m still pondering the film after seeing it this evening at the Union Square Cinemas in Manhattan. I found this aptly-titled film was a futuristic thrilled with some clever twists that are satisfactorily solved with a pulsating pace and viseral film making. This elipses both BRICK and THE BROTHERS BLOOM by quite some distance, and as you note it’s really a film that connects the dots emotionally. I also agree it’s remarkable multi-themed and the young kid Cyd is played impressively. But the cast is quite solid. This is quite the exhilarating film with a buffo climax and you have come to the boards here with a passionate a comprehensive essay.

  2. I think the most impressive thing about Looper is that the first 45 minutes is so frustratingly irritating and yet it turns this huge corner and its works in spite of that, mainly because it needs that long weak opening to deliver some fairly strong narrative goods. As far as intelligent and emotionally intense time travel sci-fi goes, this doesn’t eclipse Twelve Monkeys for me, but it certainly delivers on its own.

    Blunt owns the movie, along with young Gagnon, who may be the creepiest child actor since Haley Joel Osment that I was completely spellbound by. No one has mentioned in it in a single review I’ve read, but Johnson manages to weave a fair amount of the anime classic Akira into this film, and that in and of itself is something of a triumph.

  3. Sam, I don’t know about you but I went in expecting very little, but I really really dug it. I was actually skeptical based on my experience with Brick and Bloom. I love to be surprised.

    Joel, yeah, the first 30-40 minutes kept me from giving this 5 stars. I’ll see how it goes a second time, but I was completely not into it and I was convinced it was going to be another “The Grey” level overrated disaster for me, but it turns out that opening was necessary. Not only does it sort of set the scene, but it also sets Gordon-Levitt’s character as a basically loathesome person and ****SPOILER*** that counterpoints beautifully with his final act turn around. ***END SPOILER****

    Interesting that you mention 12 Monkeys which I didn’t even think of and haven’t seen in ages, but totally fits the mold. Monkeys might trump Looper in cleverness, but for me I think Looper had a slightly stronger emotional kick and that made all the difference.

    Ha! Akira too I hadn’t thought of, but yes. Someone else also mentioned Brian De Palma’s The Fury. I think Johnson was definitely drawing in a lot of influences, but like the Wachowski’s in The Matrix or Tarantino at his best, he made them his own and wasn’t just copycatting.

  4. I’m sure excited by all the positive reviews for Looper.

    Inception had a real emotional punch for me. Among other things, I thought its metaphorical representation of how we can unhelpfully deal with grief was very effective.

  5. 12 Monkeys and Looper are only distant relatives to me, but if nothing else the Bruce Willis connection is there. I haven’t seen The Fury in ages, but this film really manages to find some potent imagery that reminded me of Akira.

    I agree on the opening act too: I couldn’t think of anything there I would leave out, but I wish it worked a bit better. And I can’t stand the prosthetics on Levitt. What a huge distraction. If Josh Brolin can do a convincing younger version of Tommy Lee Jones with acting alone, I think Joseph Gordon Levitt would be equally up to the task. If I were going to dock the film for anything it would be that horrific make-up.

  6. Sartre, Inception hit me on a purely intellectual level. I could see where certain things were supposed to be moving, but ultimately it just felt empty inside. Nolan was too wrapped up in his cleverness, which in and of itself is fine, but I find the movies that work best for me are the ones that get under my skin. Inception always remained at a distance.

    Joel, that’s the thing about Gordon-Levitt, he proved more than up to the task of emulating Willis. It was enough. We didn’t need the effects. And why weren’t they as concerned with making the old version of Paul Dano look more like Paul Dano? Or why didn’t they just age Dano with makeup? Those two never appeared on screen at the same time for long.

    I’m not sure what I’d change about the beginning either. In retrospect I think it might work better now that I know the full arc of Gordon-Levitt’s character. There are also a number of details I think I didn’t quite follow. I think I grasped the narrative well enough to mostly hold the big picture together, but there were a few ins and outs that I wasn’t sure about after the fact.

  7. Great write-up Craig! My only problem is that I have to wait until Friday to see this with my girlfriend.

  8. Colin I look forward to hearing what you think of it. I’ve heard some mixed views, but people mostly seem to be positive.

  9. Just saw it, and I completely agree. The beginning worked for me, too, though it definitely started operating on a higher plane first when Willis arrives, and then Blunt. Smart, inventive writing, strong acting, terrific pacing, great blend of elements and genres, humor and heart in appropriate measure. The kid had an amazing intensity that was equal parts frightening and endearing, not an easy act to pull off. Damned fine film. It’ll have a strong shelf life.

    I really didn’t even notice the prosthetics, except to wonder why with they’d made Joseph’s eyebrows so much darker and thicker than Bruce’s. Odd to me.

    I’m in a ridiculous with the spouse about the logic of the ending, but I agree with you. Perfect. I’d give the whole thing 4 1/2 or 5 stars. I want to see it again already.

  10. I think my thing with the beginning was that in the back of my mind all the positive buzz was swirling around and I was watching it thinking “OK, this is fine but it’s really nothing special.” And based on my reaction to Johnson’s other films I thought that was going to be as good as it got. Then Willis showed up and he and JGL had that amazing diner scene and I was hooked from there.

    Also, anyone arguing a point of logic regarding the end of the film has totally missed the point of the whole thing and needs to pull their thumb out of their asses and open their eyes. Wait… unless you were the one with the issue with the logic. From what you said it sounded like you were fine with it.

  11. Ah, that pesky expectations thing again.

    Yes, I thought the ending’s logic made as much sense as a time paradox can make. Moreover, it made narrative and artistic sense, and made the film that much greater, since that’s the part that actually matters. An incredible story in which someone dramatically changes in a credible way is in my mind superior to a credible story in which someone dramatically changes in an incredible way, ya know?

  12. Yes, the movie made just enough sense to hold together which is way more than you can say about most such time travel plots. It was just a framework for the themes and emotions. If you’re ignoring the latter because you want to nit pick the former… well that’s your loss.

    I’m glad in your infinite taste and wisdom that you saw what really counted :)

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