(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on September 28, 2012.)
There are things I’d really like to write about Looper, yet I cannot, as I don’t want to spoil anything for you. Looper, as you may well know, is a time-travel movie having to do with criminal organizations from the future disappearing people by sending them back to the past, where they are shot dead upon arrival by assassins called Loopers. When the older version of one of these Loopers is sent back to be executed and escapes, that’s when all hell breaks loose and parties on all sides are up in arms trying to find both versions of the same person.
You see, that’s all I knew going into the film. In a 2008 Q&A I attended with writer/director Rian Johnson for his previous film called The Brothers Bloom, he announced that this was going to be the premise of his next film, and I’ve been wondering about it ever since. After four years of waiting, I’ve finally seen it. Did it meet my expectations? Thoroughly. Why? The logic of time-travel and its implications have always been a fascination of mine. From the first time-travel movie I saw as a child (Time Bandits), to the ones I saw in my formative years (Back to the Future, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure), to the ones I saw when I was taking film a bit more seriously (Twelve Monkeys, Terminator 2: Judgment Day), to the modern era of time-travel (Donnie Darko, Primer, The Jacket), I’ve constantly been entertained by the notion of going back in time and changing things. Looper has become one of my favorite time-travel movies, delving deep into causality and the varying consequences of changing things in the past – deeper than running over a pine tree. We’re talking about multiple timelines running concurrently, the question of whether things are capable of being changed or if life is predestined, and the various lasting consequences that radiate further and further from the point of change. The Butterfly Effect, if you will.
When it comes to Rian Johnson’s films, there’s a strong originality accompanied by an undercurrent of what I like to call “new old-fashioned.” His debut feature, Brick, was a story about a sleuth trying to get to Mr. Big via the upper crust of society. It was a throwback to the hard-boiled pulp detective novels from the 30s and 40s, yet took place at a modern-day high school. (Also of note about Brick: not one obscenity, four-letter or otherwise, is uttered audibly throughout the movie.) The Brothers Bloom, his next film, featured two con men, their assistant, a lovely mark, and gentle, warm tones that belied the seedy subject matter of the film. Lots of wood and browns, dialogue that shifted between 50s romance and current-day slapstick, and an old-timey approach behind the camera. With Looper, the look of the film is just as important as its content. We shift rapidly and abruptly between the cool blues and grays of the big city and the dulled browns and whites of the country, and Steve Yedlin (Johnson’s cinematographer on all three films) manages to make it all look fantastic. Without having to spike our senses with camera tricks or jarring editing, we’re given a stable film to enjoy without getting a headache.
In front of Yedlin’s camera are solid performances by every last actor; Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis both play the younger and older versions of Joe, the Looper embroiled at the heart of this conflict. Gordon-Levitt has been given prosthetics to match Willis’ face, and the result is astounding – he pulls it off perfectly, playing Willis’ younger self with conviction and spirit. People may just reduce Gordon-Levitt’s efforts as a mime job, but there’s something else going on here that elevates it way past mime; it’s in truly becoming someone else that Gordon-Levitt makes his mark, and it’s indelible. From speech patterns to how he furrows his eyebrows, he’s a perfect match for Willis. Rounding out the cast are Emily Blunt and Pierce Gagnon as Sara and Cid, a mother and son living in the country who get caught up in Older Joe’s machinations; they provide a welcome, human balance to both iterations of Joe’s almost automaton-like existence.
Looper satisfied the action junkie in me, as well as the cerebral side. While it’s not a constant guns-blazing, bodies-hit-the-floor kind of movie, it’s got enough in there to use as a plot device. Truthfully, it’s a little bit of a modern Western – a man makes a mistake and tries to fix it; in the process, he has to defend someone from an oncoming onslaught of violence. To be sure, it’s moved out of the Western realm and straight into the science-fiction-tilted world of Kansas City in 2044, where flying motorcycles and time-travel are possibilities, and the drug of choice is dropped into eyeballs, not shot into veins. The only people seen living well and enjoying themselves are the folks engaging in criminal activity, with the rest of the population living out of cardboard boxes or on decrepit farms. It’s a rather sharp caste delineation that Johnson puts forth, with the criminals leading the glamorous life and enjoying such luxuries as spacious apartments, access to exclusive clubs, gorgeous women, and (as he writes in his screenplay) “a cherried-out 1992 Mazda Miata.” Yup – currently, it’s kind of hard to see the Miata as anything less than a rollerskate-car; but 52 years in the future, who knows what’ll be considered great? One can only hope in 52 years and beyond, Looper will continue to be considered a true science-fiction classic.