Review: Looper

jason stives puts in the loop…

To better convey the feelings felt towards a film it is best to recount the feelings that occur right after seeing them. Coming out of seeing Looper, the latest sci-fi adventure from director Rian Johnson (Brick, Brothers Bloom), I found myself very unnerved by the proceedings and not only did I remain silent but my mind stayed distilled of thoughts for the minutes after I was done seeing it. Why though? I clearly liked the film and I know I didn’t dislike it so why the feeling of confusion? Sometimes the right kind of film does that to you where you just need to breathe it in before snapping your conscious back into reality even if you are already moving, clamoring for your car keys and already passing the Uno restaurant adjacent to the theater you just left. After much deliberation it was obvious what I had just seen was something special and not in the over hyping sense. Two trains of thought were obvious though: Looper might possibly be one of the most surprising films to come out this year and possibly one of the best science fiction films to emerge out of the past decade.

The films not too distant but distant enough setting is set up by Joseph Gordon Levitt’s noir like narrative: Thirty years from the year 2044, time travel will be invented and Levitt’s character Joe is a looper, a hired assassin designated to disposing of bodies from the future sent back in time. Sending victims back to the past eliminates their whereabouts from the present and by past standards these people never existed. For loopers like Joe this is business but then they begin to notice that the people being sent back are older versions of themselves closing their loop thirty years later and allowing the present participants to retire with a great severance and a pat on the back. As disturbing as this is it doesn’t matter to them. Loopers drink, do drugs and live life without fear of future consequences. Joe starts to question this logic and meets it head on when his own loop is closed by sending back his future self (Bruce Willis) who ultimately escapes the execution. Now Joe is on a manhunt to find his future counterpart as well as escape the personal manhunt on him by fellow loopers but Joe’s old incarnation has his own agenda beyond avoiding death by his own hands.

Time travel itself is a storytelling tool that either is filled with holes or is put into a simplistic filter that doesn’t bog down the plot with theory. Back to the Future is a prime example of time travel made simple where as the complicated 2004 indie film Primer has a whole site dedicated to its time travel theory. As many readers know here on Pop-Break, time travel is a fun subject for some of our coverage but despite the intrigue of the idea it comes with dire consequences that involve the altering of established history and future events. Free will is really the hand that rocks the cradle in character driven time travel stories and Looper focuses more on that than it does the actual technology. Bruce Willis as old Joe really sums it up in talking with his younger self that it is now “a bit cloudy” and that explaining it would require hours they don’t have and creating diagrams with straws.

So because of that the time travel is ignored in part for the character development and that’s fine because if you put too much thought into the time travel in Looper or at least some aspects of it is complete bullshit. What we have here is Joseph Gordon-Levitt showcasing once again the dynamic actor he has become over the past 8 years of his career. Not confined to being mildly pretty and solemn he has taken on a diverse repertoire of roles and taking on a drug induced, French learning, killing specialist is as complex as it gets for Levitt at the moment. Joe leads a very procedural life that he relishes in until his would be assassin job turns dull and repetitive bringing into question the passing time and the purpose of his existence. In a film about consequences of actions, neither Joe nor his older self seem to learn much despite having a sense of nobility and poise in every decision they make. Willis on the other hand showcases the cool demeanor we have loved about him for almost 30 years but like most of his best roles he fluffs it out with a cold center that is constantly moving with thoughts and confusion. Sure, Bruce is getting up there in age but he is a far more capable actor than most of his action counterparts and when he has a gun in his hand he becomes a quick triggered rebel.

Beyond our two distinguished male leads there are some strong female parts to be had (well, really only one if you don’t count Piper Perabo’s side role as a prostitute/stripper/coyote ugly something). Emily Blunt takes on the repressed matriarch duties of Sara, a harvesting woman who holds a strange and unsettling secret from Joe when it comes to raising her son, Sid. Blunt is strong as steal looking after her quick witted son, and Pierce Gagnon who plays Sid gives one of the best performances from a child actor in quite some time. Elsewhere we have supporting roles from Paul Dano, creeping it up again as a disjointed fellow looper named Sid, and Jeff Daniels as Joe’s boss who ultimately gets some of the funniest lines in the film.

The film’s pace does feel a bit shoddy after the first hour but that’s when the plot really settles into its core focusing on Old Joes pursuit of the infant rainmaker, a child who will grow up a holy terror crime boss responsible for closing all open loops. This is where the story for me pulls out some frightening imagery in particular the idea that old Joe, who you assume is the wiser of the two versions, is far more desperate in saving himself than he may seem. It is the existential events on Sara’s farm that really move the film into a thrilling and unexpected finale although the ending could easily be figured out when you break down the possibilities. When things get gritty and violent it resembles something out of last year’s Drive where the stylized violence is punctual and done in far more desperate circumstances than just pointing and shooting at an enemy. It isn’t just the gun battles that invoke the most shocking moments as one scene involving a future looper seeing the effects of his present self’s dissection really pushes out some disturbing imagery and it balances out some of the psychology of the films time travel perfectly. The dialogue is also very crisp and sadly having not seen Johnson’s other work I have been told this is a common trait of his script writing.

Visually the film has so much working for it afforded by making the film not too futuristic and not too modern. Dystopian futures are a dime a dozen in modern science fiction and it can be utilized without playing up greatly the general stereotypes of those worlds although in 2044 Kansas something called the Vagrant Wars have occurred and many are homeless in an otherwise industrialized city. There are many hallmarks of the late 20th century in Looper’s tongue in cheek distant future ranging from ties and button down shirts being trendy to cars like a Miata being considered vintage stuff. For me this is very reminiscent in tone and setting of Blade Runner which is obviously helped by the neo noir feel of the narrative. Noir isn’t really something that is used much in this day and age and if you are going to use it use it well without making it seem hokey and dated and thankfully by layering strong characters and continuously moving plot the film avoids falling into a brooding private detective like format where dark streets are dimly lit save for steam and moonlight. Rian Johnson also balances color out very well by having half the action in the bleakness of the city and the other half in no man’s land of farm brazened Kansas. In a way it complements the night and day mentality of the story’s characters where they are looking for a solution that sends everyone home happy but ultimately has an underlying, dark purpose.

There is a reason that my favorite film of all time is a time travel film (Back to the Future) and it’s because it almost seems genreless by default and is capable of covering various genres by accident just by being a great story. Looper is by no means Back to the Future but its intent and pay off reminds me greatly of the feelings I receive every time I watch the Delorean speed off into the closing credits. Looper isn’t a film that wins awards nor is it one that reaps in heavy box office receipts but it’s a film that can satisfy the most staunch film lover AND the most laden movie attendee. It’s too narratively plotted to be a blockbuster and too thrilling and action packed to be a true indie film. In short, Looper is an exciting punch in the face of a film that offers an enriching and original story as well as provides great visual action and entertainment to those looking for a bit of escape but, heads up, you’ll be paying far more attention to the character and the narrative than you would the average explosion filled thriller.

Rating: 9 out of 10 (Outstanding)