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.
Filed under: Review