A time-travel twister that pits a ruthless hit man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) against his future self (Bruce Willis), Looper marks a huge leap forward for Rian Johnson (Brick). His grandly conceived, impressively mounted third feature shows a giddy, geeky interest in science-fiction, then forces it into the backseat and lets the multidimensional characters drive. In a genre infamous for loose ends, this thinking man’s thriller marshals action, romance and a dose of very dark comedy toward a stunning payoff.
In the future, mobsters dispose of unwanted rivals by sending them 30 years back to the past, before time travel has been developed, and into the hands of a team of young screw-ups called “loopers” to do the killing. Why loopers? Because sooner or later, these live-in-the-moment assassins will wind up killing their time-displaced selves—or “closing the loop.” They’re rewarded, handsomely, and life is sweet until, well, until time travel is invented and they get booted back to face the barrel of their own blunderbusses.
You don’t have to be Albert Einstein to know sending assassins back to the past is a bad idea—not for a movie, but as a system of gangland garbage disposal. Kick your unwanted trash into the future, and you’re rid of it, but blast a career killer back in time, and there’s a pretty strong chance the death-marked assassin will irrevocably alter the “future” from which he came if he can manage to escape.
That loophole, big enough to drive a plot through, is precisely what makes Johnson’s crazy idea work. Joe, played by Gordon-Levitt with pale blue contacts, puffy lips and a fake schnozz that takes some getting used to, is pretty unconflicted about killing strangers from the future, himself included. But when Older Joe arrives in the form of grizzled action star Willis, his 30-years-younger self flinches just long enough for the guy to get the upper hand, knocking Joe unconscious before disappearing into his own past.
Now, here’s where things get fun. You’d think that Older Joe has the upper hand, able to anticipate the way his younger self reacted, but as cat-and-mouse games go, the young punk has a distinct advantage, since the slightest injury to Gordon-Levitt’s body travels forward to appear as scar tissue on Willis.
The film demonstrates just how this works with Joe’s sidekick Seth (Paul Dano). After purposefully allowing his older self to escape (or “letting his loop run” in the parlance), Seth hides out at Joe’s place—not a smart idea, considering Joe prizes money over friendship, and doesn’t put up much resistance before surrendering Seth to the syndicate chief (Jeff Daniels). What follows is a truly disturbing death scene, as Seth’s loop tries to hop the nearest train, only to see 30-year-old injuries start to appear all over his body, the result of the younger Seth being sadistically tortured offscreen.
Kill the kid and his loop goes, too—a rule that puts Older Joe in the awkward position of simultaneously having to run from, and protect, his younger self. Trickier from a storytelling standpoint is the fact that audiences don’t meet Willis until the first-act break, at which point the film must rapidly supply a romantic backstory for a character who, in the present reality, technically does not yet exist. So, while Gordon-Levitt’s Joe is a heartless hustler, Willis’ older-and-wiser counterpart brings soul to the character, having discovered—and had to watch die—the love of his life.
Willis can play the tough guy in his sleep, but it’s the character’s tenderness that makes possible the ruthlessness with which he sets about trying to change his own fate. Thirty years after the story takes place, a mysterious figure called “the Rainmaker” has risen to power, and in classic Terminator fashion, Older Joe has the rare chance to strangle the monster in his crib.
While Willis single-mindedly begins to hunt down and execute 10-year-olds, Gordon-Levitt tracks down a lead that points him toward an isolated Kansas farmhouse where Sara (Emily Blunt) and son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) have cut themselves off from modern society, leading to the inevitable confrontation between the two Joes—and a twist that not only rewards the intricate character work of the movie’s laggy middle hour but also beautifully ties everything together.
Complicated as it all sounds, Johnson paves the way with wall-to-wall voiceover. As in Brick, the script’s well-tooled lines are stilted enough to sound cool, and angled in the direction of comedy, relying on expressions less suggestive of a sci-fi future than they are of vintage film noir. Face-to-face with himself, young Joe hisses, “Why don’t you do what old men do, and die?” If the imperfect yet promising Brick teased an exciting new voice, then Looper suggests big things ahead.
The seemingly exhausted gross-out comedy genre gets a strange temporary reprieve with This Is the End, an unlikable but weirdly compelling apocalyptic fantasy in which a bunch of young stars… more »
Characters are frequently urged to “release the beast” in The Purge, a high-concept home-invasion shocker set in a future where one night a year all crime is legal. But what… more »
The human brain is a marvelously suggestible organ.
With the right encouragement (or chemical assistance), we’re capable of seeing sex orgies in inkblots, ghosts in windows or a waistline 20… more »
There’s one key truth that separates the tank-topped gearheads of the Fast and Furious movies from the rest of us. Every problem these lugnuts face can be solved by doing… more »
Director JJ Abrams has followed up his sensational 2009 Star Trek reboot with a sparkling 3D sequel.
The core of the earlier film is present and correct: Chris Pine as… more »
Some audiences have trouble with experimental films. I have trouble with experimental films that aren’t experimental enough.
Truthfully, I prefer straight-up, linear narratives. Character, conflict, catharsis—you know, all those things… more »