Old hip meets new hip
In his review Anthony Lane of The New Yorker notes the obvious suitability of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as joint players in Rian Johnson’s new time-travel movie given the younger man’s fluid and assured performance in the reality-twisting Inception and Willis’ equally adept turn in Twelve Monkeys, which, as Lane again points out, was based on Chris Marker’s La Jetée, the haunting little French sci-fi classic that shows how the most appaling mishap of time travel may be the way your later and earlier selves could unexpectedly collide. That’s what happens in Looper, by Rian Johnson, in whose high school noir debut Brick Gordon-Levitt also starred. How his career has bloomed in between! Looper is both a mind-bender and a genre-blender, with various references or sources. Its initial focus on hit-men from a rough, lawless, dystopian urban future may remind you of Blade Runner, which, like this, was a sci-fi noir. Lane points to a basic steal from Terminator, and refers also to links between Looper and The Omen, Signs, Back to the Future, even Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “Kids under twenty, and professors of quantum physics,” Lane says, will “eat this stuff for breakfast” — they’ll take the conceptually playful contents of Johnson’s new movie in stride. The rest of us will be baffled, though we may enjoy our befuddlement. So here is a hip, young, cool movie, which some will love and others may want to give a wide birth to. The most accessible thing, perhaps oddly, is its elegant, original look, and an overtone of frustrated longing for times just beyond our reach.
I like the offbeat genre mix, the clear, distinctive images, and the odd linking of the two stars — the ridiculous yet engaging idea that these two actors could be readily passed off, with some visual tricks, as the same person thirty years apart. After months of expectation, however, Looper was a bit of a disappointment for me, so far. It is certainly a leap forward into mainstream, wide-release filmmaking for Rian Johnson, which still bears an individual stamp, and this is a feat in itself. Something like what may happen again when the playwright Martin McDonagh rides forth shortly from his minor film siccess with In Bruges to the quite likely bigger and more widely seen Seven Psychopaths. Mike D’Angelo, whose advance reports I’ve been following more and more lately, has raved about Looper and put it in his in-flux 2012 Ten Best List, even based on what he said was “a very rough cut” before Cannes. His recent review opening statement, “Looper uncommonly crafty as action thriller, uncommonly exciting as art film — and great fun as both,” may be true, but I missed out a little on both aspects and hence also on the great fun payoff. As D’Angelo says, it might be a more enlighteningly elegiac experience to see one’s future, sixty-something self, than to try to alter one’s future course, but the focus on such deeper ponderings is weaker than Chris Marker’s.
The premise of Looper that if nothing else we must get our heads around is that at a point in the future, the 2070’s, murder has become so well restricted that gangsters use time travel (though that now is illegal) to ship their whack jobs to 2044, where hit men called Loopers off them with a crude weapon called a blunderbuss. Young Joe (played by young Joe the actor) uses an ornate antique pocket watch to gauge the time of his exections: he’s a Looper. And then he discovers that he’s been sent his future self, Old Joe (old Bruce) to whack. When a looper assassinates himself, it’s called “closing the loop.” Young Joe doesn’t want to do it. What’s he going to do about it?
Maybe the moment when this question might best be answered, though it isn’t, comes when the two Joes sit opposite each other in the booth of a classic diner, staring at each other over identical plates of steak and eggs, “rare and scrambled.” This is the closest at least when it feels like some Tarantino-esque dialogue is going to be uttered. But it isn’t. Nor is the voice-over throughout the film to explain things as frequent or as pungent as one might have hoped.
Young Joe and his cohorts have a boss from the future, the bearded and amiable-seeming but actually cold and cruel Abe (Jeff Daniels, who presided in Brick) And there’s an obstreperous fuck-up in the crew called Kid Blue (Noah Segan), who has a strong presence but remains a minor player in the action.
The plot has an important overlay: whether or not Old Joe keeps Young Joe from offing him or Young Joe successfully rebuffs Abe’s minions who are sent to get him, there is someone else who can foul things up. This is a character callled The Rainmaker — whom Young Joe later encounters as a child — who has a superabundance of “TK” mutations that allow people to levitate things, and also is bent on closing all the loops. It will be a good thing to get rid of The Rainmaker back in 2044, if possible.
Young Joe has a best friend, Seth (a wispy and hysterical Paul Dano) whom he betrays after he messes up and must hide. Each Looper hit is rewarded with a number of bars of silver, and Young Joe has been stashing his away for years. He cares about them more than people.
Though violence in the form of Western style shootouts and cold blooded executions continues throughout the film, the action is divided into a city segment at the beginning and a country one at the end. This transition is nimbly executed. There is no love interest till Looper’s pastoral last segment, when he hides out in a cornfield and seeks refuge from Sara (Emily Blunt), whose farm it is, and who has a suspiciously prescient and spooky child called (El?) Cid (Pierce Gagnon, whose performance creeps up on us nicely). The 2040’s are rife with vagrants, it seems, and Sara warns Young Joe at rifle point that she has recently killed several of them.
It remains to discuss the makeup or CGI or whatever applied to Gordon-Levitt to make him look more like a young Bruce Willis, which many have considered to be a grievous error, only further underlining the fact that the two actors don’t look much alike. This is slightly unfair. Gordon-Levitt has mastered a number of Willis-esque intonations and gestures, including trademark grimaces and smirks, and there are times when his mouth and cheeks as altered quite successfully evoke Willis. A bit of trouble comes when the two actors sit across from each other in the diner, when Willis’ head looks clearly larger and rounder than Gordon-Levitt’s. This did not bother me very much: the physical differences, but induced similarities, make one ponder the strange alterations of time. But one can imagine a time in the future when CGI will have advanced to the point where Willis could play both himself and young Willis, or vice versa for Gordon-Leavitt. If this matters.
The consensus on Looper, which has gotten rave reviews, is that Johnson does a good job of avoiding the usual loopholes time-travel sci-fi stories tend to collect, but doesn’t avoid then totally. Why, one might ask, is it always assumed that by traveling to the past one can alter the future? But this is the sine qua non of the genre. Peter Debruge of Variety thinks it’s foolish to send mob enemies to the past to be killed because they might rearrange their futures back there; it would be better, Debruge asserts, to dump them forward into the future. Different writers have understood or misunderstood the movie quite variously, and that may point to its future as a hotly discussed cult film.
DIRECTOR: RIAN JOHNSON
WRITER: RIAN JOHNSON
STARS: JOSEPH GORDON-LEAVITT, BRUCE WILLIS, EMILY BLUNT, JEFF DANIELS, PAUL DANO, NOAH SEGAN
RUNTIME: 118 MIN