Rian Johnson’s “Looper” – An audacious temporal thriller

Rian Johnson’s Looper may be the closest thing to a perfect time travel paradox since the Terminator franchise. Once again, meddlers from the future are changing the past, using their perfect foreknowledge to make things better for themselves. If they want to make someone disappear, they don’t just murder them and destroy the body- they zap the target back in time to be killed by assassins in the present day (in this case, 2044), called loopers. The problem arises when looper Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is presented with having to murder his own future self (Bruce Willis). Joe the Elder escapes from his younger self and strikes out on a mission of his own, to preserve his life in the future.

This outlandish premise works for two reasons. First, the world-building for both time periods is extremely effective. 2044 is a grim, dark, crime-ridden place, and 2074 seems perhaps even more so, just a bit cleaner (especially if you go to China, which is obviously an economic powerhouse). Both periods feel very lived-in despite their obvious budgetary constraints.

Second, the film sets up a clever time travel mechanic wherein Future Joe – whose mere presence is altering his own timeline – doesn’t know the outcome of every situation involving his younger self, but he does remember it once it happens. It’s an action-oriented version of Marty McFly fading away from a photograph, and the film explains it with just the right amount of technobabble and disturbing imagery, punctuated by Willis telling his younger self (and perhaps the logic centers of the audience’s brains) to kindly shut the fuck up and stop wasting time slogging through the murky waters of time travel.

This bit of hand waving makes for an extremely haunting and effective ending, as we’re left to consider the full and lasting impact of Future Joe’s presence in this timeline. Looper dares to present us with high personal stakes for both versions of its protagonist, set them in opposition to each other, then force us to consider whether the future of this despicable person should be saved. It’s a theme that has been touched upon before (Doctor Who’s The Girl Who Waited comes to mind), but never with such a thoroughly unsympathetic protagonist. It’s a bold choice, and it definitely pays off.

Gordon-Levitt’s performance is unsettling, to say the least. His face is nearly unrecognizable in its attempt to resemble Willis- so much so that I suspected some kind of digital alteration, but after watching the film, the illusion is surprisingly convincing. When Gordon-Levitt is telling his older self to “do what old men do and die”, I could almost shut my eyes and imagine Willis delivering the line. Much of this is due to Gordon-Levitt’s physicality and voice work. But the physical alterations (whether digital or cosmetic) went from being a slight and deliberate distraction to an effective filter for the audience to forget at least one famous face and think of these two men as one and the same. And for the record, I never would have guessed this from the trailer.

Along the way we meet Sara (Emily Blunt) and her possibly-adoptive son Cid (Pierce Gagnon), whose farm becomes the central setpiece for the film’s final act. The film takes a bit of a turn with the introduction of this odd little family. Cid is an alarmingly precocious child, and not in a grating, Short-Round sort of way. In fact, Cid’s intelligence and command of the situation is intimidating to characters and audience alike. To put it mildly, there’s something off about this boy. While it would spoil much of the film’s climax to reveal his precise role, it’s safe to say that his effectiveness hinges on a brilliant performance from this child actor.

The only weak link is Blunt’s character. Much of the film’s ending hinges on her intrinsic good nature, and we get very little evidence of it apart from her own word on what a good mom she is. The best explanation I could muster for the obligatory love scene was “Why not?” Sara’s baffling seduction of Joe could be readily explained by the loneliness of a rural, single mom, but it seems a bit far-fetched given his status as a murderous drifter – which she seems fully aware of from the moment they meet.

Despite this issue, Rian Johnson has crafted a smart and effective thriller with well-drawn characters and a novel take on time travel. During his grand hiatus of TV directing since The Brothers Bloom, I’ve had time to forget just how effective his dialogue can be. Every exchange in this film is multifaceted enough that it will surely benefit from repeat viewings. The relationship between mob boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) and young buck Kid Blue (Noah Segan) – who may in fact be the same person – is certainly worth another look.

FilmWonk rating: 8/10

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