The Most Beautiful Fraud: Looper
One thing needs to be addressed right off the bat when discussing Rian Johnson’s excellent new sci-fi drama Looper: yes, its time travel narrative doesn’t make any sense. Congratulations on spotting this well-concealed flaw, so integral to the essence of the film that Johnson was blowing it off as largely inconsequential before Looper was ever released. Your perceptiveness is noted for the record, and I am sure you are equally as able to spot all the ridiculously unrealistic things about sci-fi movies that you have enjoyed in the past.
Now that’s out way, so let’s got on with the business of appreciating Looper for what it is: a character-driven drama couched inside an effective crime story, with some sci-fi trappings that are effective while still being, yes, rather flimsy. Here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about: Looper‘s premise, for those who don’t already know, is that in the near future (60 years from now), time travel has been invented, but is illegal, so it’s only used by criminal organizations to facilitate murder. They seize their victims, strap precious metals to his body (to pay off the looper, or hitman), and send him back in time to be killed. Does any of this make a lick of sense? Certainly not. But the very first scene in the movie — with an impatient Joseph Gordon-Levitt standing in a sugarcane field waiting for his victim to arrive, hooded and helpless, weighed down with silver, to be instantly obliterated by a blast from a shotgun — delivers the premise with thrilling efficiency, and instantly hooks you into the narrative. That, I’d argue, is one of the marks of a good movie: it immediately brings you into its world and compels you to stay with the idea right to its conclusion, regardless of whether the idea is plausible.
Gordon-Levitt is ace hitman Joe; his troubles begin (after some clumsy but probably necessary exposition) when he’s tasked to ‘close the loop’, or execute a future version of himself — a devil’s bargain common to the profession. Future Joe (Bruce Willis) is just as skilled as his younger self and with three more decades of experience, and he’s powerfully determined to pursue an agenda that he hopes will destroy a future mini-Hitler — and, more importantly, spare him the most agonizing moment of his life. This is the moral conflict of the story: how far will Future Joe go to change the past, and how much can Present Joe deviate from the man he is to stop the man who will become? That’s the dramatic narrative that drives every major decision of Looper, and I don’t much care that it abandoned the ‘logic’ of made-up time travel to do so.
Johnson has really stacked the deck with terrific actors, which keeps you involved in the story throughout. None of the roles are especially original in their conception, but plenty of great movies are filled with types; it matters more that they’re played with conviction. There’s no need to waste space talking about how Joseph Gordon-Levitt has gradually turned into one of America’s best, most versatile screen actors; that’s been the subject of a million magazine interviews already. It’s enough to say that his Bruce Willis impersonation here is very enjoyable, and that he lends it enough emotional nuance that it’s clear they’re playing the same character, but equally clear that they’re both two very different people. I doubt I’ll ever be blown away by Willis as an actor, but he nicely handles Looper‘s biggest story reversal, and it’s a lot more fun to see him in rampaging action-hero mode when you aren’t called upon to pretend he’s upstanding and heroic.
The ubiquitous Garrett Dillahunt turns up here as a gentlemanly but menacing criminal, and steals the show, as he almost always does; Paul Dano is fine as a callow mess; Jeff Daniels steps out from his comfort zone to deliver an engaging performance as a paternal, world-weary mob boss; and Noah Segan (Dode from Brick), stuck with a somewhat thankless role as an approval-seeking fuckup who’s Young Joe’s arch-nemesis, does well with what he’s handed. A key role in Looper is played by a child actor, which is always a huge risk, but young Pierce Gagnon, called upon to be both menacing and terrified, with a diffident relationship to his guardian, does a terrific job. (That guardian is played, and quite well, by Emily Blunt; after seeing the movie, she looked so familiar I was positive I’d seen her before, but looking at her filmography, it turned out I hadn’t seen a single film she’s been in. She’s just got one of those face, I suppose.)
Even with such a good cast, Rian Johnson, as both writer and director, has to do a ton of heavy lifting, both to sell Looper as a sci-fi actioner and to keep the all-important dramatic aspects front and center. Good as it is, Looper didn’t quite electrify me the way Brick did; this may be because I’m just more constitutionally inclined towards noir than I am towards sci-fi, or it may be that Johnson had a lot more selling to do with Looper. The future mythology is effectively but subtly delivered; the conception of a ruined society where the rich live hovercraft-large while the poor murder each other for old clothes is nicely implied without wasting too much time, and most of the technology is suitable shabby — there’s time travel, sure, but aside from fancy-looking guns and retrofitted car engines, everything looks pretty prosaic. Johnson is also wise to follow his instincts by establishing the future world but not bothering to spend all his time there; the back half of the movie takes place largely on an exurban farm. Had he stayed in the city, the pressure would have been great to devolve into tedious action-movie explosions and CGI overload.
Looper‘s story, as might be expected, has dozens of twists and turns, some big and some small. For the most part, Johnson handles them exceptionally well; a callback to Jeff Daniels’ seemingly arbitrary origin-story for Young Joe assumes great importance at the end, and a number of red herrings float our way, keeping us occupied with irrelevancies while the plot moves inexorably on. A few don’t work so well; while Johnson manages to tie her story in with Old Joe’s (and plug it into a child-in-peril theme of the film that works to build tension and character without being too exploitative), Piper Perabo’s character seems a bit out of place, as if she was a holdover from an earlier draft of the script. There’s a little too much exposition, and while I think Johnson made the right choice to keep law enforcement largely out of the picture (we don’t want this to turn into Timecop, after all), the invisibility of government does raise a lot of questions. The ending of the movie is one that we knew from the first frame was going to be awful tricky; it’s a razor-thin line between predictable and inevitable, but I think Looper ultimately comes down on the right side of that line.
With this film, Johnson has well established himself as a director of rare talent. Visually engaging but capable of creating emotionally interesting characters, he’s also a thoughtful filmmaker, and can weave a meaningful story into a highly formalist genre setting. Looper is a very rare thing, a movie of ideas that also works as an exciting and effective popular entertainment. That’s something we don’t see very often. In light of this, it seems sort of churlish to attack it for the fact that it doesn’t make a lot of sense in a technical way. Given the choice of a movie that delivers a watertight sci-fi premise and a movie that fuzzes the edges of its gimmick but delivers the goods in terms of character, theme and story, I’ll take the latter every time. (It’d be nice to say we don’t have to choose one or the other, but that’s a truism for some other world.) That he’s managed to make a crime drama and a time travel movie with a story that works and a half-dozen good performances is almost a miracle; I’ll save my quibbling for a less successful effort.