Directed by: Rian Johnson
Written by: Rian Johnson
Cinematography by: Steve Yedlin
Starring: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt,
Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Noah Segan
I can honestly say, that I haven’t been this giddy for a [sci-fi/time travel] film since Marty McFly and Doc Brown traveled back to 1955 in order to retrieve the stolen Grays Sports Almanac from Past Biff after it was stolen from Future Biff in 2015, creating an alternate 1985.
If you didn’t get that reference, we can never be friends. Ever. In any timeline.
Don’t get me wrong. The Hulk was amazing in The Avengers, and I loved (and mimic on an almost daily basis) Bane’s accent from The Dark Knight Rises, but this film genuinely surprised me in ways that absolutely surpass the aforementioned, or even any of the other films I’ve seen this year. As an aside (the first of many), fall is my favorite season for films. The entire season just gets me. It’s where my kinds of films emerge and showcase the reason I got into film in the first place. January to about March is where these types of films usually go to die (my love for 2007’s Zodiac was never reciprocated). Then there’s May to August, the so-called “summer blockbuster” season, which completely overshadows such films. They’re fun, but not always memorable. When I revisit them in the future, it’s usually just to watch select scenes that I remember enjoying, but the film as a whole doesn’t always stay with me. September to December is where I [will] bask in the glory of such films as the one I’m currently reviewing, as well as Argo, Cloud Atlas, Skyfall, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Killing Them Softly, and Django Unchained.
Let me also start off by saying (consider this my second aside), that I’m extremely biased when it comes to films revolving around time-travel. And I mean all of them. I’ve seen The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009). I didn’t mind it (naked man acting like a chomo to a young girl who will later go on to become his wife because he Inception-ed that shit into her mind during a tea party, aside). There’s just something about time travel as a concept that I will forever love and be intrigued by. Looper is no different. It understands that concept/genre, and takes it in places that are both familiar, and brand new, yet never loses its real importance: the characters and the story. The best moments in time travel films is very rarely the time travel itself. The T-800 emerging naked in an abandoned alleyway isn’t the most appealing part of The Terminator (1984). Neither is climbing into a man-made box in a U-Haul storage facility like in Primer (2004). Though, to be a hypocrite for a second, the DeLorean re-entering the space-time continuum at 88 miles per hour, is the sound by which I receive all my texts, and it is awesome. But I digress.
In the first ten minutes, you’re told absolutely everything you need to know about this film. Time travel’s been invented, but outlawed in the future (2074), utilized solely by the mob to get rid of its enemies, by sending them back and disposing of their bodies in the past (2044). Led by their boss from the future, Abe (Jeff Daniels), the hit men assigned to this job are called Loopers. Every so often however, in an act of “closing the loop,” they must dispose of their Future Selves, assuring a good life for at least the next thirty years. “Letting your loop run” is when a Looper fails to kill his Future Self. So when Past Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) encounters Future Joe (Bruce Willis), he hesitates, allowing for his Future Self to escape. This sets both men up on a path of course correction, while being hunted by Abe and Kid Blue (Noah Segan).
The film at this point can honestly go in a myriad of directions, introducing alternate timelines, and potential paradoxes, all in an attempt to blow your mind with its so-called time travel logistics. Looper doesn’t quite do that. I mean, it does, but it keeps things confined, and dare I say, even simple. Yes, there’s the complex elements we’ve all come to know and love–like the Future Self changing to reflect actions done by/to the Past Self, not to mention the Sarah/John Connor Complex of finding someone and killing them before they are ever born and/or put on a conflicting path with the time traveler–but it is never confusing, and it’s never boring. Despite Future Joe and Past Joe being the “same” person, they are entirely different characters, and thus, are easier to follow. Past Joe is more than content to have his loop closed, while Future Joe is just fighting to keep the timeline (and the woman he loves) clear in his head, and to keep his Past Self on a similar path.
At this point, I realize it’s getting tedious to read/write the words “Past Joe/Self” and “Future Joe/Self” over and over again. So, from this point forward, I’ll just call them JGL and Bruce Willis, respectively.
For Bruce Willis, this is his once chance to eliminate the problem at its source. There’s a man in the future, called the Rainmaker, who is gathering all the past Loopers and sending them back to once and for all not only close this particular loop, but to close the entire Looper game itself. This isn’t as simple as merely avoiding your other self, as to not set forth a chain reaction of events that would forever alter the space-time continuum (because really, haven’t we all been there?). It’s much worse than that. The stakes are incredibly high. Bruce’s biggest enemy is not even the Rainmaker, so much as it is JGL. Killing the Rainmaker only allows for this confrontation with JGL to perhaps never occur. JGL however, won’t have any of this. He despises the mere sight of Bruce. Thirty years in the future be damned, this is his present, and JGL just wants one thing from Bruce: “Why don’t you do what old men do, and die?”
One of the most crucial elements in the film is how memory works/interferes with one’s mind, especially when both sets of people, the past and the future, exist within the same present. There’s a scene in the diner, where the two men sit across from each other and attempt to discuss what will happen next. Bruce isn’t having any of this “time travel shit,” while JGL is being smug, and just wants to know Bruce’s game plan, asking “Do you know what’s going to happen? You done all this before, as me?” As an audience, we’re asking the same thing: how does that work? Where as in most films dealing with time travel, the traveler is confined to whatever memory he or she arrived with, Looper throws at us a very interesting twist. JGL’s memories are fresh, and are made as they happen. But for Bruce, those memories are cloudy at best, but are suddenly getting clearer, as he really has already done all this before. He knows what will happen, because in retrospect, he should’ve already done it. He knows where JGL will be and what he’ll do next. The kicker? Given JGL’s present actions, he might slowly start losing the future memories he holds onto so dearly. When Bruce tells JGL about the woman he loved in the future, JGL displays a menacing sense of disgust at the idea, asking to see her picture so when he eventually saw her, he’d turn and walk the other way, preventing that future from ever happening. It’s heartwrenching stuff. Likewise, there’s a scene where we find Bruce hunched over in an alley, starting at his pocket watch, at her face, and he keeps repeating, “The first time I saw her face” in a desperate attempt to conjure up her face, if not the entire memory. It’s getting harder to hold onto, and it’s heartbreaking to realize that even our memories, the very things we hold dear and think we’ll always have, can slip away without a choice, without so much as a second thought. Instead of her face, he keeps seeing another woman’s face, because unbeknownst to him, the timeline is changing.
Bruce Willis seems to bring his A-game when his more sci-fi orientated flicks are concerned. His Joe isn’t much different from his James in 12 Monkeys (1995). He’s a man burdened by his role in changing the past, and thus, changing his present, what we know as the future. When he arrives, he channels the cool and collected personality that’s come to define him, but he knows as well as we do, that this journey will be anything but. This man is driven by [lost] love, and will do anything to achieve his goal, even if that means getting out there and T-800-ing little kids he thinks will grow up to be the Rainmaker. It’s cold and it’s calculated, but we understand why it needs to be done. I haven’t seen such range in Willis’ performances for a long time. Here’s hoping he maintains it, and doesn’t succumb to more Expendables and pointless Die Hard sequels.
This film is nothing without JGL. Even with the sometimes glaring make-up, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that halfway through the movie, it just starts to work and come together. The make-up is just one part of the performance, and not even a crucial one at that. There’s a certain sense of awe seeing Old/Future Joe sitting across the table from Young/Past Joe. Visually, it’s a remarkable shot, akin to watching Pacino and DeNiro finally interact at a diner in Heat (1995). Yeah, I know they don’t look like exactly alike (sometimes not even remotely like one of them is the other’s thirty year counterpart like say, Jeff Bridges in 2010’s TRON: Legacy), but that’s not jarring to me. To watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt out-Bruce Willis Bruce Willis, in his mannerisms and whispered speech pattern, while still maintaining a sense of character separate from the other, is remarkable. Like Bruce’s transformation/realization at what his task will need, JGL too, goes through an arc. When he finds the real Past Rainmaker, Cid (Pierce Gagnon) on a farm with his mother Sara (Emily Blunt), and attempts to be their Kyle Reese, he is no longer the spiteful version we saw in the diner. He’s still very driven by his goal, but the stakes are a lot higher. It was like watching Warrior (2011) and rooting equally for both men to win.
The film slows down when it gets to the farm, to not only build suspense, but also its new characters and dynamics. Emily Blunt is magnificent here. She manages to convey a range of emotions, from being a protective, badass mother, to being a woman who is terribly vulnerable, and ultimately has no real control over the situation that has presented itself to her. She’s matched, almost step by step, by this little kid, Pierce. He holds his own in every scene he’s in, and sometimes, even overshadows the others. He absolutely nails the part.
The supporting cast is amazing as well. Paul Dano as JGL’s best friend Seth, who is the first to let his Future Self run, sells us on the dreary world and job of the Loopers. In order to obtain his Future Self, they mutilate Seth and watching his Older Self succumb to those injuries thirty years later is the most chilling thing I have ever witnessed on the screen this year. It’s not painful, and it’s certainly not torture, considering these wounds would’ve healed themselves in thirty years. But the anguish in the reveal is sickening. Likewise Jeff Daniels emerges from The Newsroom a better actor finally getting his due. For those who have never seen The Lookout (2007), his dynamic with JGL is brilliant (“I’m from the future. Go to China.”). The other standout is Noah Segan. I don’t know much about him, but every time he was on the screen, I did not know what Kid Blue was capable of. He’s twisted, he’s driven, but ultimately, he just wants approval, and he’ll do whatever he can to get it. It’s an electrifying performance.
This brings me to Rian Johnson. This is only his third film, but it is by far, his most polished, and is just a perfected piece of filmmaking. Brick (2005) proved he understood how to get deep into the mind of a genre and conjure up those nuances wherever he saw fit. Looper isn’t merely a sci-fi film. It’s got elements of a western, film noir, and gangster picture, all wrapped into one, and it never feels silly or out of place. The script is almost air tight, and hilariously clever when it wants to be. It poses questions two steps ahead of us, and drops subtle references and callbacks that will only make repeated viewings of this film all the more enjoyable. Every line means something. The design of the future isn’t in your face. Yeah, we’ve got flying cars and futuristic buildings, but they’re mere afterthoughts in this world. They exist, and do nothing more than enhance an already well established world. This could very well be the future, a shitty dystopia attempting to hide itself from itself under the guise of a few technological advances.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the ending. I saved it for last, so anyone reading who has still not seen the film, avoid the next paragraph if you do not wish to be spoiled.
Gripping. You’ve had your quick reveals, your diner shootouts, and have even had time to quiet down on a farm, enjoy the rich Kansas landscape, and possibly catch your breath. That all changes in the last twenty minutes or so in this film. “And the path was a circle, round and round. So I changed it.” JGL’s sacrifice to save Sara from dying and Cid from becoming the Rainmaker worked for me. It made sense. He couldn’t shoot Bruce because we’re told his particular gun is useless outside of a certain range. He had no other option. Could he have shot himself in another location besides the heart? I don’t really know what difference that would’ve made. It would’ve maybe bought him some time, but Bruce would’ve healed from a thirty year old wound, while JGL bled to death. It wouldnt change anything, because Bruce would’ve found a way to kill Sara at least, setting Cid down the dark path where he’d be hell bent on closing loops and taking over the mob anyway. Killing himself, and taking himself out of the equation completely was the only way Sara’s earlier plea with him about Cid “grow[ing] up good” with her will come true. That’s all that matters. Bruce became the JGL he once hated, driven by blind rage and an even blinder love, while JGL became the Bruce he’d eventually have become, saved by a woman, and doing everything he could to protect her.
I’d do anything to protect her, to love her, and still close the loop.