Like the high-concept Christopher Nolan films Memento and Inception, Looper has the kind of complicated plot and dizzying narrative structure that makes you want to watch it for a second time immediately after your first viewing has finished. It’s the kind of film that will potentially reward those that seek subtle clues to support interpretations of the plot in their repeated viewings, though those that are only able to rest when every question raised by the film has been answered will ultimately be frustrated. A second viewing may help a little if you struggle first time round or miss something important, but unless you wish to go insane by trying to make perfect sense of Looper‘s inventive and ambiguous plot, there comes a point where you have to give up on the unanswered questions and the logistical ins and outs of time travel. Is this a good or a bad thing? Maybe I’ll think about dropping some clues to an answer in a forthcoming, second review that’ll be published on this blog three years ago.
Also like Inception, Rian Johnson’s third film (after the superb modern noir Brick and the patchy but endearing The Brothers Bloom) demands that you sit up and take notice, and that you do everything you can to follow the on-screen action. This isn’t I’m-just-gonna-drop-in-five-minutes-late sci-fi. And it isn’t I’m-just-going-to-take-a-leak-and-catch-up-when-I’m-back sci-fi either. This is science fiction that treats you like an adult and also challenges you to keep up, that grips you by your lapels and refuses to let your attention drop for the first 30-40 minutes, at least until the slower-paced second half kicks in. Did you go to the movies or rent a DVD just to zone out for a couple of hours? Wrong movie I’m afraid.
This assumption that the mainstream cinema audience is both a) intelligent and b) willing and able to pay money to follow a fairly convoluted fast-moving high concept plot is a welcome trend of late. While Looper isn’t perfect, I personally feel a lot of optimism about the future when films like this are financially successful ($166,000,000 and rising) and directors like Rian Johnson are backed with decent budgets (around $30,000,000 apparently).
The film is largely set in Kansas, in 2044. Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper, a contract killer who is paid to murder people sent back in time by criminal gangs from 2074 (for time travel has not been invented in 2044 but it has been invented thirty years later). In 2074 body implant tags make anonymous murder impossible, meaning that sending the live bodies back in time 30 years is the only way to cleanly dispose of enemies. The loopers operating in 2044 are provided with an allotted time and place, the victim magically appears from thirty years hence with a hessian sack around the head and a bunch of silver bars attached for payment, the looper kills the victim, and then finally disposes of the body. Simple so far, right?
Unfortunately, to guarantee the safety and anonymity of those ordering the murders in 2074, loopers must also at some point ‘close the loop’, which means that their future selves are sent back in time from 2074 and their younger selves in 2044 must undertake the kill like any other; the looper is only supposed to find out that they have in fact just killed themselves when they discover gold bars attached to the body instead of silver. All loopers are aware that this must be done at some point, and after closing the loop they are then free to live the rest of their lives (well, all thirty years of it, anyway) in whatever way they choose.
The problems start when one of Joe’s fellow looper’s Seth (Paul Dano*) fails to kill his older self as he should do. Instead, the older Seth tells his younger self of a mysterious figure from 2074 called ‘The Rainmaker’, who is sending all the old loopers back in time to be killed. We never see ‘The Rainmaker’ but the suggestions are he’s a violent Hitler-esque dictator that will stop at nothing, and I mean nothing, to make it rain. Dano is underused, unfortunately. I thought he was amazing in There Will Be Blood and if I was feeling more provocative today I might even have suggested that he was better than Daniel Day-Lewis, even though I freely admit that it’s not actually true. His part here is pretty bland – Seth is young, Seth is reckless, Seth is killed fairly quickly. This is sadly indicative of the supporting roles in Looper – they just aren’t developed thoroughly enough. Jeff Daniels’ mafia boss Abe may as well be called Generic Leader Of Henchmen #1; there’s very little that makes him memorable. Not even an eye patch.
Old Seth is offed inventively when Young Seth is captured, but then the same situation befalls Joe, who fails to kill his older self (played by Bruce Willis and Bruce Willis’ Wincing Grimace), though not through want of trying. Old Joe has decided to revisit the past after seeing his Chinese wife murdered by the mob goons sent after him, and intends to change history by wincing, grimacing and eventually seeking out The Rainmaker as a small child, before killing him. Abe and the mafia crew understandably aren’t happy that things have been messed up, and so they spend much of the film’s second hour hunting Young and Old Joe around Kansas City and the surrounding countryside. Meanwhile Young Joe gets wind of Old Joe’s plan and hides out at one of Old Joe’s three potential targets: a rural farmhouse that is home to Sara (Emily Blunt) and her telekinetic child Cid (Pierce Gagnon), who will indeed one day grow up to be The Rainmaker.
Though Looper is a smart film, Johnson refuses to get bogged down by the logistics of time travel and recognises the fact that overly-serious chin-stroking about multiple futures could potentially suck all of the enjoyment from the very core of the movie. At one point Abe wryly spits out the line “This time travel crap just fries your brain like a egg…” and Old Joe also tells his younger self: “I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.”
That said, Looper doesn’t dodge all of this time travel stuff, but it does leave you to ask the questions and it also leaves you to try and answer them yourself. Johnson is more concerned with resolving the situation he creates with the first half of the film, namely the fate of Old and Young Joe and Cid. While it’s a satisfyingly meaty subject to consider, it really will fry your brain like an egg.
The absence of fatherly advice is key in Looper. Cid lacks a dad and there’s much to suggest that this is why he grows up to become a terrible despot, while Young Joe’s only sources of advice and guidance are Abe and his older self, both of whom are completely flawed, violent killers. (Abe, who has been sent back in time from 2074 to run the looper operation, tells Young Joe at one point that he should move to China instead of France, but that’s the only help he gives his young charge.) Johnson hints at a world in 2044 that has half-descended into a moral wasteland: on the surface all is well with bright, neon lights and skyscrapers indicating continuing economic growth in the US, yet the streets are filled with shootings and violence seemingly escalates rapidly. Aside from Cid – who at least has a mother, even though he rejects her – the male characters in Looper have no-one to show them what is essentially right and what is essentially wrong, and left to their own devices their only interest is making money in this moral-free land to spend on drugs, motorbikes and prostitutes.
I was disappointed not to see more evidence of this knife-edge future as it intrigued me considerably, but Johnson subtly shows us that things are sufficiently different to the early part of the century we know, before closing in on the story of his characters. On reflection what we see is just about enough.
I really liked Johnson’s vision of the future. It also echoes our present in a way that made me truly believe in it as a viable possibility, in much the same way I found myself nodding along while seeing the dystopian setting in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children Of Men. The special effects are not intrusive, and rather than populating his world with incredibly cool vehicles Johnson sagely predicts that crap, unexciting and practical designs will still be around in 30 years time, and so his Kansas is also home to small electric descendants of smart cars and the type of ugly, boxy vans that seem to be currently popular in Japan. Kansas City’s skyline is largely shown from a distance and is again just different enough when compared with our present cityscapes. The close up streets echo those of Blade Runner ever-so-slightly.
Gordon-Levitt and Willis both turn in believable performances as Young and Old Joe. The former is made-up to look very similar to Bruce Willis: the mouth, eyebrows, nose and general shape of the face make it all very believable and ensures the grimaces and winces match well (less so for Young Seth and Old Seth, who bear little resemblance to each other, but given that they are minor players it doesn’t matter too much). Willis is less central than he was in similarly offbeat sci fi films like Twelve Monkeys, Unbreakable and The Fifth Element, but it’s yet another addition to his CV that marks the actor out as a fine chooser of projects.
I enjoyed the change of pace in Looper; the first 30-40 minutes are frenetic, confusing and very exciting. When the action transplants to Sara’s farm it slows down considerably, and gradually builds to a decent (but predictable) climax. This is a brave move by Johnson, again recognising that sci-fi fans aren’t simply satisfied by having the dial turned up to eleven throughout any film they watch. And, in a nutshell, that’s why Looper feels like an important film; it’s indicative of a modern trend of cerebral, future-set films that provide a welcome antithesis to all the technology and explosion bonerthons that Hollywood also churns out. We need this anti-Bayism right now, for sure.
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Written by: Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano
Running Time: 118 minutes