Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Looper Movie Review

When a filmmaker ventures down the wormhole of time travel as a narrative device, he’s setting his film up to be prodded and picked apart in the minutest detail to discover all the flaws and inconsistencies. The best time travel movies tend to be the ones that have some intelligence about the process and implications of traveling to the past, but mostly they succeed when the time travel becomes secondary to other elements in the film.

Take a film like Back to the Future, for example. Yes, without the time travel there is no story, but the breakneck pace, the good writing, the funny jokes all take precedence over the fact of Marty going 30 years into the past. In the case of Rian Johnson’s Looper, I could talk about a paradox that unravels the entire story if we follow logical consistency, but we’re dealing with a science fiction action film that relies on something that doesn’t exist and is only theoretically possible in terms of traveling forward in time. In Johnson’s film, the only time travel happens backward.


You see, the main action takes place in 2044 when time travel has not yet been invented. But thirty years from that time it has been and it’s also been outlawed. It is employed only by criminal organizations that use it as a means of disposing of unwanted people. It turns out concealing evidence of a murder is very difficult in 2074, so these organizations use loopers in the past to carry out assassinations. They wait at a predetermined time and place with their special guns known as blunderbusses (a kind of shotgun that blows everything apart within fifteen yards), pull the trigger and collect the stacks of silver bricks attached to the body. When the body is laden with gold bricks, they know they have closed their loop and their contract is finished. A closed loop means the looper has killed his future self, who has been sent back for assassination so as not to leave any loose ends.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a looper who comments on the lack of forward-thinking ability in his fellow loopers. Sure, they acquire great riches, but they know the 30 year life clock is ticking once they get that gold. So we know what’s at stake should someone allow his loop to go free, Joe’s best friend Seth (a wiry and nervous Paul Dano) does just that. The criminal organization has people in 2044, led by Abe (Jeff Daniels) to hunt Seth down. When Abe calls for “the doctor,” you know this can’t be good. When old Seth starts having body parts disappear, we know that letting your loop go is disastrous and we know what’s coming. Joe continues his dirty work until one day he’s meant to close his loop, but he lets his older self get away.

Bruce Willis plays old Joe. Willis is Willis, but the real acting on display is from Gordon-Levitt who, with the aid of subtle facial prosthetics to make him resemble a young Bruce Willis, has all the mannerisms and vocal patterns perfected. When you see these two actors in a scene together you realize just how good Gordon-Levitt really is. And it’s a testament to the quality of the filmmaking and the acting that in a diner scene with the two Joes in a classic two-shot, I kept thinking of the old technique of a split screen where one actor plays a dual role and has to appear on screen with himself.

Johnson’s first feature film, Brick, is one of my favorites of the last decade. It’s a 1940s detective noir set in a high school. His second feature was equally ambitious and creative, but lacking any real verve. With Looper he should really solidify his position as a unique voice in American filmmaking. This is a big style Hollywood action film that isn’t afraid to ask its audience to think. It’s an amazingly refreshing break from the bombast of Transformers and other high rent disasters. One of the marvelous things he does in Looper is to create two different characters out of the same character and make them both protagonists in the same story even though their goals are entirely at odds with one another. Young Joe must kill his older self while old Joe has another plan in mind.

We get the chance to follow old Joe from the time he is Gordon-Levitt. We see the loop assassination scene take place a second time, but this time he carries out his duty. Then he ages in a montage sequence until he becomes Willis, continues a life of crime and drug use, moves to China and falls in love. Then they come for him, but he overcomes his attackers and goes back to change history. His mission is to rid the world of the child who will grow up to become the Rainmaker, a fabled crime syndicate leader who possesses some kind of power to control all organized crime across several cities. Old Joe figures if he can kill the child Rainmaker, he can save the loopers and his wife, who was killed in the crossfire in the future.

If this all sounds very confusing, that’s because it is. Looper is, at times, mind-boggling and we’re not even at the halfway mark. Gordon-Levitt winds up at a farmhouse staying with a young woman named Sara (a no nonsense Emily Blunt) whose son Cid might be one of old Joe’s targets. This calls to mind the age old philosophical quandary: if you could travel back in time and kill the baby Adolf Hitler, would you do it? Although the question lurks beneath the surface, the film is not all that interested in exploring it. It’s more concerned with the idea that time is cyclical and that history repeats itself. I find this idea much more compelling especially as, given the current world economic climate, the stage is set in Europe for further calamities similar to those carried by (incidentally) Adolf Hitler. I see history repeating itself in ways that the world proudly announced, “Never again,” after World War II. History does repeat itself and we don’t, as a society, learn from our mistakes. So what can young Joe do to stop the cycle of violence that, for him, began with his parents abandoning him so that he might turn to a life of crime?

Even if the very story in Looper weren’t endlessly entertaining, the film would remain one of the best looking films of recent years. Like Christopher Nolan, Johnson relies as little as possible on CGI. Most, if not all, of the special effects look authentic. Nothing here was done on the cheap. This is a first rate action thriller. And it just doesn’t matter if some aspects of the time travel don’t make sense. Johnson pulls you into his story and doesn’t let go until it’s over. Even then it will retain its grip on you for some time.

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