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Looper Review: Don't Bet Your Future on One Roll of the Dice

By Daniel Carlson | Film Reviews | September 28, 2012 | Comments ()


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It can be tempting to write off Rian Johnson as a writer-director who just likes mashing things up. His feature films -- Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and now Looper -- have shown remarkable skill at marrying two seemingly incongruous worlds and making them feel totally at home nested within each other. Brick wasn't just a high school drama masquerading as mystery, or vice versa; it was both at once. Yet he's able to pull this off because, as much as he loves mingling disparate genres, the mingling is never the point. He's more than just a gimmick. Johnson is profoundly interested in character and consequence, like good storytellers in every genre, and he's specifically drawn again and again to tales of people who buy and sell bullshit and whose biggest liability is believing their own hype. Joseph Gordon-Levitt anchored Brick as Brendan, a high schooler on the trail of a missing ex who twisted the truth as much as the people he was chasing, so it feels right for Gordon-Levitt to return for Looper, playing a man whose hunt for truth puts his own existence in jeopardy. Looper is many things -- a gripping action movie, an smart sci-fi story, a heartbreaking time-travel lullaby -- but most of all it's about a man watching himself go through a process most of us take for granted: he has to decide what he wants to believe, about the world and about himself, and then live with the consequences.

Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is a looper, a hired gun working for the mob in Kansas, 2044. In his future, organized crime has come up with a pretty nifty way to cover up illegal activity: they send their victims back in time, at which point they're promptly killed by loopers like Joe. When the mafia men of the future want to end a looper's contract -- when they want to "close the loop" -- they simply send the 30-years-older version of the killer back to be shot by his younger self. Being a looper is a suicide mission, only with the added hell of watching yourself die and knowing you can't change it; knowing, in fact, that you have to go through with things to keep the universe from going haywire. Time-travel movies are all about regaining control over your life in major course-corrective ways, but the pleasing twist of Looper is that being involved with time travel means surrendering that control. Joe spends his days interacting with the physics and philosophy that have launched a thousand movies and stoned dorm-room conversations, and he's utterly unhappy because of it.

In one of the film's many wonderful diversions from its thematic forerunners, Looper is a time-travel story where we don't actually do any time traveling. The film is set and anchored in Kansas in the year 2044, and the only part of the film that deals with the timestream in a visual way is a stunning montage showing one character aging from the film's "present" to the future c. 2070, as well as a few scattered scenes there. Johnson's film deals more with the effects of the technology than its execution. As Joe narrates in the film's first moments: "Time travel hasn't been invented yet, but thirty years from now, it will have been." Joe -- and the viewer -- is always on the outside, always reacting, never quite able to get a handle on the power of the device that's at the story's center. Looper often feels like a slicker, more emotionally resonant version of Shane Carruth's fantastic 2004 time-travel indie drama Primer -- Carruth worked on Looper as an advisor and designer on the time-travel devices -- with equal time given to action and drama. That's the real mash-up Johnson so brilliantly pulls off here, gliding between frenetic, graphic violence and gentle, almost elegiac scenes of quiet emotional struggle.

The first act is front-loaded with speed and action as Joe's life and career start to abruptly crumble when two very unfortunate things happen back to back: his own future self (Bruce Willis) shows up to be killed, and then his older self promptly escapes. Old Joe has his reasons for running, hoping to stop a chain of disastrous events before they can start, but his flight puts Young Joe in danger from the syndicate that employs him and would just as soon kill him now, since the ripple effect would eliminate the older man, too. Johnson isn't making a buddy movie, though. Old Joe and Young Joe do not team up to have wacky, ontologically troubling adventures while taking a stand against the bad guys. Each is violently opposed to the other's success -- Old Joe wants to live and change the past, Young Joe wants a chance to experience his own future -- which lets Johnson make some keen observations about how much we change as we age. Watching a movie, we know that two separate men are playing differently aged versions of Joe, but in real life, it wouldn't be wrong to say that a man at 30 and a man at 60 are two completely different people. The younger man is skilled but cocky, nothing but certainty and arrogance. The older one is shot through with melancholy and regret, fueled not by a desire to see what life can bring him but a hope to get it back. When the men briefly meet up before parting ways in a firefight, there's a brutal tension in the air.

The film eventually opens up to a tense character study. Young Joe retreats to a farm outside the city where he knows the older Joe is headed to try and eliminate the person who will wind up causing so much grief in the future. The farm is run by Sara (Emily Blunt), who lives with her young son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon). This is where the film unfolds and really blossoms, as Old Joe makes his way through the city and Young Joe hides out in the country, waiting to see if he can capture or kill his future self. The city section that starts the film is a grimy, nihilistic vision of a future overrun by people and decay, but the country half is lit by blue skies and empty fields, reflecting the choices and opportunities being offered to the characters even as it seems their options are narrowing. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin, who shot Johnson's other films, keeps everything looking gorgeous, from the blue-gray scale of the city to the burnt-out yellow-green of the cane fields at Sara's farm.

Joe's a brooding, violent guy at any age, so in a lot of ways, Gordon-Levitt isn't so much playing a character as he is reverse-engineering an anti-hero based on Willis's general persona. (He also sports make-up on nose and brow to reshape his face along Willis's lines.) At the same time, Willis is playing the tenderest version of the killer he so often inhabits on screen, the man who kills not because he likes it but because he's good at doing what needs to be done. The good news, though, is that their dual performance works. They're believably different men, motivated by conflicting desires, but they also feel like part of the same ragged whole. Blunt is great, too, the kind of sad, strong woman that Johnson loves put between two men. The entire cast is perfect for their parts, from Jeff Daniels as the casually evil mob boss who run's the city's loopers to Paul Dano as Joe's screw-up friend and colleague to Noah Segan as Kid Blue, an angry mob lieutenant who can never quite get things right. That's a theme that comes up a lot here, like it does in all Johnson's movies: people just a hair's breadth from not messing up, holding on for dear life.

Johnson keeps the pace moving along perfectly as the narrative's circle tightens and the main characters (or character, really) are drawn together to rewrite their own histories and discover new ones. As the older Joe tells the younger, talking about time travel means dealing with a "precise description of a fuzzy mechanism," and he does his best to cut off his junior self from asking too many questions that are impossible to answer. This isn't a dodge from Johnson, either, but his way of saying that yes, the tech is here and the story holds water, but the real focus is on the people willing to defy all known laws and travel through time to change themselves, not on the tools they use to do it. The nightclub that the younger Joe frequents in the city is called La Belle Aurore, after the bistro in Casablanca where Rick and Ilsa last saw each other before reuniting in tangled circumstances years later. It's a nice touch that underscores just how much Johnson wants you to realize that his story, that all stories, are ultimately about the unseen consequences of our choices. Looper is a smart, engaging, moving meditation on synchronicity and fate, and the way we always seem to come back to places we thought we'd left.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.



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Comments Are Welcome, Douches Are Not


  • SorayaS

    **SPOILER**

    So he has sex with his mother??!

  • Bedewcrock

    ***SPOILER***
    No, they're different people. Joe just recognized the parallel story of an orphaned boy who would grow up to be an angry man and closed that loop/potential.

  • Abbey Road

    I'm just surprised no one (unless I missed it) has yet mentioned the most awesomely horrifying execution scene possibly in the history of cinema*. That was phenomenal visual storytelling.

    *Possibly an awe-induced hyperbole, but still.

  • Palaeologos

    No shit. Just thinking about it makes my skin crawl; sublime terror right there.

  • Stephen Mercer

    Pierce Gagnon was fantastic ... JGL and Willis killed it ... Excellent movie, can't wait to see it again!

  • Scully

    "You will take her love, like a sponge."

    I was not expecting so much emotion from this film. That said, it is a terrific movie. What a beautiful blend of sci fi and drama, like you say DC.

  • TwoLeftShoes

    The movie wasn't perfect, but I enjoyed it. The beginning was heavy on overlaying narration, but once it got into it, it was pretty good. More hard sci-fi than I would like (with the TKs and hover bikes), but their effect in the overall plot made me swallow it a bit better. When the film tugged heartstrings, I felt it worked, but maybe I just get emotional at everything. It was good, but not great, and I feel it's worth a see for anyone who sees a lot of movies or who is in a bad place and wants to cry at a relationship.

  • Blake

    My mind was blown. Easily the best movie I've seen in the last few years.

  • The Pink Hulk

    I just found it underwhelming. It had its moments, and the acting was certainly fine, but the plot was beyond convoluted. The pacing was also off, and I found myself wondering on occasion when it was just going to end. I won't think about it again after a week.

  • Amanda

    I loved this film. Turned out to be more thought-provoking and heart-pulling then you would expect, but in a good way. Also - the little boy was perfectly cast as someone who could be terrifying yet also instill total sympathy...

  • UMNomad

    This movie was a 2 hour commercial for post-partum abortion.

  • barlowjk

    I saw this last night and really, really wasn't expecting it to be so good. I won't get into too much detail, but a lot of time-travel stories -- The Time-Traveller's Wife is a perfect example -- lock their characters into this rigid predeterminism: "I can't tell you because I didn't tell you!" So that there are really very few surprises. This movie does away with that. Fuzzier, as they say.

  • Capacuz

    To me, and I am a huge fan of Rian/JGL/etc. this movie was a let down. I really felt like the pacing was off as the middle of the movie just dragged. Also SPOILERS the whole TK thing (which i knew would play a big role in this movie) just sidetracked me. I was let down.

  • Pants_are_a_must

    I was VERY worried about how creeped out I'd be from JGL's Bruce Willis prosthetics, but not only he looks far better in the movie than in the trailers, his Willis mannerisms are also completely spot on, down to the smirk.

  • Paladiea

    Why don't they just have the new loopers shoot their older s
    selves as "initiations"? That way the loop is closed from the beginning...

  • Pants_are_a_must

    Why didn't the eagles fly the Fellowship to Mount Doom with the One Ring? BECAUSE THEN WE WOULDN'T HAVE A FUCKING PLOT.

  • AudioSuede

    Also, inevitably the loopers would be hard to track down; after they "close the loop," they're given a ton of gold and let out of their contracts, so they'd probably go straight into hiding to try and prevent their death.

  • Abbey Road

    Yeah, you're kind of right. The loop-closing is the "final job" and the big payout. I think it did make sense that way. Another friend asked though why they didn't just zap the dudes straight into the incinerator. But yeah, I'm willing to overlook it.

  • Because, like they said. In the future it's harder to get rid of bodies. They have a better system to track down bodies so that's why they have loopers in the first place.

  • jollies

    [MAJOR SPOILERS]
    Loved it. As such, I'm willing to overlook all of the following:
    1. Why not kill them, then zap them back for disposal?
    2. Why not zap them back to 1,000,000 BC, then no need for loopers?
    3. Why not zap them back inside a mountain?
    4. Why not zap them back to the same day, just 3 minutes apart, so you can have a one day shooting-fest?
    5. What did they do with the body of Old Joe's wife?
    6. How did the Rainmaker "see his mom killed by a looper" and "have an artificial jaw" in Old Joe's timeline, when Old Joe hadn't shot the Rainmaker or his mom in that tuimeline?
    7. Why didn't Young Joe just shoot off his right hand at the end?
    In the end, I just assume there are answers for all of these questions that just weren't explained. (E.g., maybe you can only send things back in time by a fixed amount of time to a fixed place; maybe what you send back has to be more than 50% alive by mass; etc.)

  • carobiscuit

    Ah God the right hand thing...much better idea :/

  • Hazel Dean

    Having had an opportunity to attend an advance screening of this film on Monday, I heartily concur with Daniel's review. It's a fantastic film, and while I went into it expecting to enjoy it (I'm a huge fan of Rian Johnson's other films), pretty much everything else about it was unexpected.

  • commanderfunky

    I have to say that I was a bit disappointed. I pay very close attention to plot details when it comes to time travel and there are some glaring holes that made the movie impossible to like for me. I agree with how the world is set up, and the beginning half of the movie was amazing, but the second half doesn't follow through on any of the the things it set up in the beginning. I felt the same way about Prometheus.

  • the_wakeful

    Having the first name 'Willis', I don't appreciate this review referring to the actors by their last names. It's very confusing for me. Gawd.

    I'm totally watching the shit out of this movie, though.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I'm down for this movie. I don't mind actors not perfectly matching as future/past versions of an individual. The Times review called the make-up downright distracting though, so I'll be curious to see how much that's the case.

    I do always take exception to the concept that "I'm good at killing, and it needs to be done, so might as well be me." I mean, I know those people are out there - it's just a self-deception in most cases.

  • I didn't find it distracting at all. JGL is still just as bone worthy. Times can suck it.

  • junierizzle

    The make-up wasn't distracting at all. It's a non-issue.

  • Gabs

    I was not all that interested in this before, but after your gorgeous review, I am suddenly intrigued. Maybe I'll catch it after all.

  • Even Stevens

    I can't see this until next weekend, but I am so excited and your review only made it more so. Can. Not. WAIT.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Shocked

  • Even Stevens

    Hee, see what you get when you get sassy? DOWNVOTED.

  • lowercase_ryan

    You don't even know, I haven't even uncorked my sass yet. But downvote away, your anti-sass ass will rue the day.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    I just wanted to fit in, man. It's all this peer pressure.

  • Even Stevens

    *I* didn't downvote you, but 12 other people did

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    "Watching a movie, we know that two separate men are playing differently aged versions of Joe, but in real life, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that a man at 30 and a man at 60 are two completely different people."

    This is a really astute observation, DC. Yesterday, I read about a study that was dealing with how we imagine our future selves. When we think about ourselves, one portion of the brain lights up and when we think about others it lights up a different portion of our brain. But whe we think about our *future* selves, it lights up the portion that deals with others, rather than our current selves. Fun fact for the day.

  • Natallica

    Consider my mind fucked

  • abby

    This study was also in a Cracked article from yesterday. Coincidence?

  • Sara_Tonin00

    that is a really good fun fact.

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