There is a group of writer/directors working today, all born between 1970 and 1980, who are producing some of the best examples of contemporary fringe filmmaking an audience could hope for. Christopher Nolan is the most successful and well-known of course; however, the works of Nacho Vigalondo, Ti West, Duncan Jones, Christopher Smith, Michael J. Bassett, Pascal Laugier, and Rian Johnson, all of whom began releasing films within the past decade, are easily even more exciting and interesting. And these are the filmmakers who have made more than a single film to date. One could easily include Gareth Edwards, Neill Blomkamp, Shane Carruth, and Brandon Cronenberg in there, as well as a few others I know I've forgotten.
Rian Johnson has now written and directed three feature films, and each one is an improvement on the previous work. Brick (2005) was a breath of fresh air, although it relied perhaps too heavily on the artifice of noir dialogue in a modern high-school setting. Despite that, Johnson showed a flair for complicated plotting and a willingness to take no easy outs with his characters. The Brothers Bloom (2008) was a more light-hearted affair, telling the story of con-artist siblings pulling one last job. Despite the cliché nature of the initial idea, the film showed more heart and affection for its characters, with another stylized and twisty plot that kept viewers guessing what was real and what was con.
Looper (2012) brings together the best parts of each of the previous films and Johnson takes a step forward toward more naturalistic scripting without losing any of the style or intricacies of his previous work. Without spoiling too much, Looper is the tale of both Young and Old Joe, played respectively by Johnson veteran Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis.
If you're reading this you probably already know that a Looper is a time-travel hit man of sorts. The film is set in 2042, and thirty years beyond that, time travel will have been invented and immediately outlawed. And when you outlaw time travel, only outlaws will use time travel, as it were. For an unspecified reason, it is impossible to dispose of a body in this future (??), so hits are bagged and tagged and popped back in time thirty years, where a Looper is waiting with his blunderbuss to blow them away and dump the body in a furnace.
The Loopers are organized by a boss named Abe (Jeff Daniels), who was sent from the future, and trapped here by the same token. So he sets himself up as the Big Boss of Kansas City, where thirty years from NOW, things are pretty shitty. In America, anyway, there's been some sort of crash and the city is filled with homeless Vagrants who exist, it seems, just to get in the way of our cash-flush Loopers as they tool through the streets.
Loopers are not the most forward-thinking lot, and it is standard operating procedure to finalize your employment by murdering your own future self and receiving a payoff in gold bars as opposed to the standard silver. Then you're free to do what you like until thirty years later you are bagged and tagged and popped back in time to be murdered. That's called "closing your loop."
Johnson's script is heavy on monologue as Young Joe explains everything to us in meticulous detail – except for when he doesn't. Where details are not forthcoming, rest assured, Johnson has explanations in mind. He just didn't bother including all of them in the film, which is kind of a sore point for me. Why can't people be killed in the future? According to this interview, it's because everyone has nano tech that alerts the authorities when you die. Um, okay. Also, why does a Looper have to kill his future self? Well, that explanation doesn't really make sense, even when Johnson explicitly states it (see the above link).
And what happened to Young Joe's desire to go to France? Whoops. Ran out of money and didn't feel the need to rework the script.
So yeah, it's not perfect. The film asks you to simply accept a certain set of storytelling guidelines and then enjoy the film as it plays out within the give and take of those rules. Technically, what redeems the initial conceptual shortcomings is the way future and present versions of the same characters interact temporally.
Excuse me while I geek out for a moment.
The main idea here is that we're dealing with a single mutable timeline. Alternate futures are eliminated, as demonstrated by the physical, intellectual, and emotional developments of Joe's best friend, Seth (Paul Dano) and Old Seth (Frank Brennan) – and by Young and Old Frank later in the film.
Because there's one timeline, the future is rewritten when future beings come back to the present and avoid being killed. This is horrifically demonstrated by the physically causal relationship between both Seths. The mental connection is explored with the Joes as Young Joe's experiences painfully alter Old Joe's memories. Because Old Joe is coming from a future where Young Joe closed his loop, by side-stepping that fate when he returns, he begins overlaying new memories and experiences.
Yeah, there's a bit of a problem there, but if you go with it, everything will pay off.
And just to be clear, I fucking love the way this develops. It's neat and clean while being brutally cold.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is where Old Joe desperately tries to hold on to memories of his wife (Qing Xu) and how she helped him kick drugs, once Young Joe runs into Sara (Emily Blunt) and she helps him get clean for the first time. That experience was a turning point in Old Joe's life and because he's come back in time, it's no longer the same memory. If it's still a memory at all.
This dynamic more than makes up for th
e logic problems (or outright plot holes) of the initial setup. To be quite honest, there's so much potential for exploring the world that Johnson has built here, that I'd almost rather have seen this as a second film, with a first exploring the broken down world of these Loopers in a way that helped to build character and add depth to the relationships. As it is, Loopers are pretty much just expendable losers at the right place at the right time. I'd love to see this world explored a bit. When Old Joe comes back, the film shifts into something much more traditional and predictable – although still enjoyable.
I won't go into too much detail about why Old Joe slips the closing of his loop, except to say that there's a new Big Boss in town in 2072 called The Rainmaker. Nobody knows who he or she is, but he or she has taken over all the crime syndicates and is systematically closing all the loops.
Seriously, just go with it.
The real strength of this film is in the performances. Jeff Daniels' Abe is subtle work with hints of a complexity I'd have liked to have seen expanded upon. There's a weariness there, mixed with a bit of disgust for the present in which he's trapped. Noah Segan's Kid Blue (a name presumably inspired by the Dennis Hopper film of the same name from 1973), is a heartbreaking loser who could use with more fleshing out. The scripting shortcut of having him explicitly state his need for Abe's approval doesn't do the character any favors. Luckily Segan's performance adds layers to what he was given to work with.
Garret Dillahunt provides an always welcome performance as Abe's best Gat Man, Jesse, and Pierce Gagnon is suitably creepy as a preternaturally intelligent ten-year old, Cid. Piper Perabo does what she can with the role of Suzie, Young Joe's favorite whore/single mom. If there's a weakness to the characterizations in this film, it's with the women. Perabo's Suzie is one-note, not even a hooker with a heart of gold – pretty much just a hooker with a kid. Old Joe's wife doesn't have a name and never speaks out loud in the future segments, serving merely as a guidepost around which Joe's story can develop. When generic Loopers like Dale (Nick Gomez) or Zach (Marcus Hester) get names, why can't Old Joe's wife?
Emily Blunt's Sara is the strongest female character, as a woman who overcomes her early shallowness (and possible whorishness), to become a dedicated, if not great, mom. A feat the character accomplishes only by isolating herself from the temptations of the city; although, she willingly hops into bed with Young Joe, not out of real affection, but for the emotional contact. Johnson specifies in interviews that this isn't a romance. These are just two isolated people forming a brief connection. The conclusion of the film is all about a different emotional connection that Young Joe makes.
The centerpiece performances are from Gordon-Levitt and Willis, as expected. On a technical level, Gordon-Levitt does a solid job working Willis' mannerisms into the physicality of the character. In fact, he does such a good job at it, I really wish they hadn't opted for the facial prosthesis he wears to simulate Willis' nose and brow. It's not a total disaster, but it was distracting throughout and hearkened back to Jack Nicholson's tragic false nose in Hoffa (1992).
Gordon-Levitt's Joe is kind of simple, kind of mean, and kind of hollow. Again, it's a subtle performance that I would have preferred to see played out over a story all his own. Willis does his best Bruce Willis impression whenever he gets a gun in his hand and it's as fundamentally satisfying and fun as it always is. He also gets to play Old Joe as wiser (if only barely) and both blind to his own selfishness while chastising his younger self, and fully aware of the horrible nature of his mission. As such, he gets the real meat of the roles while Gordon-Levitt is left forcing all of his character development into the last act.
Steve Yedlin's cinematography is beautiful from start to finish, as he crafts a remarkably believable 2042 and sets scenes that might fall flat without his eye. Similarly, the score by Johnson's cousin, Nathan Johnson, is haunting and perfect. This behind-the-scenes duo have been central to maximizing the potential for each of Rian Johnson's films so far in much the same way that Barry Sonnenfield and Carter Burwell helped solidify the early work of the Coen Brothers.
Overall, Looper is a strong, smart, original, and idiosyncratic film. It is a film that demonstrates a maturity of vision on Johnson's part and can easily share company with other serious time-travel films like 12 Monkeys (1995), Primer (2004), Timecrimes (2007), or Triangle (2009). At the same time it also holds its own with other recent low-budget independent genre films like The House of the Devil (2009), District 9 (2009), Moon (2009), The Inkeepers (2011), and Source Code (2011).
However, it's not a game-changer, or even the best of this batch of films; but it is a good independent science fiction film that doesn't rely on other source material. That in itself is worth trumpeting.
As an added bonus, I highly recommend checking out the Looper Tumblr page for loads of beautiful production photos, fan art, links, and a few obscure hints at inspirations for the story and set design.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot, Streaming Pile O' Wha?, and Classic Film/New Blu, all here at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US,
Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.