Looper is Rian Johnson’s third film, clearly his best to date, and a major step forward for him as a storyteller. His first two films — the bathed-in-Dashiell-Hammett neo-noir Brick and the more globally scaled con-men comedy The Brothers Bloom — showed no shortage of talent, especially in atmospheric terms, seeing as how the creative world of each film (the dour, overcast skies of Brick versus the springy, tourist-like eye of The Brothers Bloom) couldn’t be more different.
But the plotting of each of those films, particularly in the second half, drifted into disjointed pretzels, diminishing the joy of Johnson’s imagination by complicating things unnecessarily. Looper doesn’t necessarily avoid this apparent habit of Johnson’s approach to screenwriting — narratively, the second half of Looper is nothing if not wildly different from the first — but never has this schizophrenic characteristic of his work felt more in service of a common, consistent goal. Emotionally, thematically, and, most of all, morally, the uncompromising lengths to which Looper goes to explore the implications of its time-travel premise is nothing short of shocking.
The razzle-dazzle opening puts us right there in 2044 Kansas, where Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and other illegally employed “loopers” earn their living by killing mob targets that are sent back in time from 2074. Time travel doesn’t exist in Gordon-Levitt’s timeframe — the 2044 timeframe — but it does exist in 2074, and is immediately outlawed. Unable to dispose of deceased bodies — futuristic tracking techniques, we’re told, make such a task virtually unthinkable — the criminal syndicates of 2074 are forced to rely on people like Joe to not only gun down their targets with massive blunderbusses, but also to burn the dead bodies to a crisp, so that any trace of that target’s existence becomes erased.
A common career move for loopers is the act of “closing their loop.” This means that there comes a time when a looper agrees to kill their older self — their 2074 self — in exchange for a momentous payday and the awareness of knowing that they will be dead in thirty years. As Joe informs us in an introductory voice-over, his co-workers are generally lacking in their future-planning ability, so the fact that closing one’s loop essentially amounts to a form of suicide is somewhat lost on them. (That Joe and most of his friends are feverishly addicted to an unidentified eye-drop drug doesn’t help matters.)
This moment of reckoning comes for Joe, too, albeit in a less intentional fashion — when his 2074 version, played by a motivated Bruce Willis, pops up in a vast Kansas field, young Joe isn’t expecting it, and his delayed reaction allows Willis to escape. It’s after this point that Johnson begins to steer his film into truly unexpected directions — directions that are best left unexplained for people who haven’t seen the film — so I’ll only say that the rest of Looper is aided immensely by the wonderful performances of Emily Blunt, as a wood-chopping single mother, and Pierce Gagnon, as Blunt’s fierce son.
The film overall furthers Johnson’s range as a capable stylist — there are a handful of moments throughout where he simply strikes gold with unforeseeable money shots, and he milks them for everything they’re worth. It’s a sign of the movie’s depth, though, that these memorable beats stun you into silence rather than tempting you into exuberant applause. They’re cool enough to clap at, to be sure, but it’s first and foremost their ability to complicate the narrative that sets them apart. It’s in these instances, too, where the film lands on a moral entanglement that’s unheard of in most Hollywood movies of this ilk.
Despite the film’s surface sleekness, I find myself continuing to return to one of the film’s early conversations between Joe and Abe (Jeff Daniels), Joe’s from-the-future mob-boss employer who’s been sent back in time to oversee Kansas’s looper headquarters. Many of the film’s more externalized tools of world-building — the rattling image, for instance, of vagrants shooting each other in the streets without remorse — may play more heavily to the senses, but the way Daniels and Gordon-Levitt (who, I should mention, is an absolute force in his cosmetic and physical mimicking of Bruce Willis) finesse their scene, full of nervous pauses and ironic burn, is such a promising sign of Johnson’s growth.
In his previous films, there were times, for me, when the characters felt almost suffocated by their surroundings. (This is predominantly true of The Brothers Bloom, during which Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel Weisz frequently come off as Wes Anderson-like dolls.) In Looper, though, Johnson has settled into a more mesmerizing balance between aesthetic resourcefulness and innate, elemental instinct. His consent to Daniels and Gordon-Levitt — his willingness to give them space to breathe and co-exist, to play off their individual psyches — paints a convincing environmental picture in a way that couldn’t be matched by any steel-plated building or touch-screen device.
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