My full review:
At two various points in Rian Johnson’s Looper, characters mention how complex time travel mechanics can be and how it’s not really all that important to talk about them. I’ll admit that I was tempted to cheer out loud in both of these moments. Sometimes when we watch films we have the tendency to become too obsessed with the details. This leads to nitpicking and often ignores the concept of fiction and the inherent suspension of disbelief, particularly when dealing with genre filmmaking. One of the constant themes in my most recent film reviews is that of the connection. The most important thing to me when watching a film is how I connect to it. I could sit down and make a chart of all of the various events in films like Inception or Primer or Looper, or I can actually allow myself to experience the films in a more pure fashion. Everyone has their own way, of course. My intellect has indeed convinced me to chart out movies before (the aforementioned Primer) or occasionally nitpick a particularly egregious piece of logic, but at the end of the day it is all about the connection. With Looper, writer/director Rian Johnson has made a film that blows past a mere intelectual curiosity into a world of many rich and nuanced connections. Whether or not it all adds up is a moot point to me, particularly because time travel is a nonexistent concept that can only be theorized about. What Looper does, then, is make you believe.
Looper wears many hats. It is an amalgam of ideas and genres and even tone. Somehow, though, it all comes together as a fully cohesive unit. The film’s first half is paced in a very tight and propulsive fashion, which leads way to a more reserved second half. Rian Johnson has matured and evolved beautifully as a filmmaker, thanks in no small part to the visual freedom Breaking Bad gives its directors. (Johnson directed the episodes “Fly” and “Fifty-One”) Looper is a prime example of cinematic formalism. The use of camera placement and movement, constructed by Johnson alongside his director of photography Steve Yedlin, is precise and fluid. The camera observes and positions the audience. The film is a textbook example of how to use the camera as a paint brush, enhancing the story and creating a unified tone, even if the film’s content has disparate elements. Johnson is clearly an endlessly inventive man. Looper features a montage that is breathtaking in its pace and construction. Taken out of context it is a massively accomplished piece of work. Taken in context it is just another superb and mystifying element of this diverse film.
In his debut film Brick, Rian Johnson ostensibly crafted his own language. The film used a unique slang that added color and character. In Looper, Rian is once again crafting a language but this is not a linguistic one. This is a language of the future. The future presented in Looper is believable and potent because it seems possible. Technology advances, of course, but class warfare amplifies, crime and violence deepens, and the human race evolves. Farming is more automated than ever and gold and silver are valued more than cash. We see the glamour of the wealthy life and the sometimes tenuous paths one must take to get there and the squalor of the average folk. Drugs are ingested in new fashions. Yet everything seems somehow consistent. If we look back at the past 30 years our technology and society has slowly evolved but not to the extremes often depicted in science fiction. Looper seems somehow grounded in its futuristic society and that allows us to make a strong connection.
As alluded to above the film works in two halves. Looper is intense, suspenseful, and challenging. There are well choreographed and thrilling chases and action beats and fun uses of scifi tropes that are folded into this particular universe in a fascinating way. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Looper is a cool film. The set design of the nightclubs and the apartments and the nice parts of the city are gleaming and luxurious. Nathan Johnson’s (Rian’s cousin) score utilizes inventive elements that you just don’t see in traditional film scoring, yet it also has an epic quality to it that suits the action beats. This is a flashy and confident product.
Most importantly, Looper is also a shockingly rich, nuanced, and complex film. This is an efficient film that sets up its world and “rules” quickly and amidst the time travel and the action chooses to focus on character. We are shown two versions of the same man: the young and the old. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, adorned with prosthetics that make him look every so slightly more like Bruce Willis, doesn’t impersonate Bruce in the obvious or traditional sense. Joseph uses subtle gestures and vocal intonations, coupled with a different life perspective, to craft a man that feels like he could have been the younger version of the character Bruce plays. It is a complicated and rewarding piece of acting that pays off big time, and frankly I’m not even sure if the prosthetics were needed. By the same token, Bruce Willis is afforded the rare opportunity (for the second time this year after Moonrise Kingdom) to remind audiences that he is much more than just an action star. Old Joe is a man conflicted by pain and love, and he is extremely morally ambiguous. His actions and decisions throughout the film are challenging and puzzling, and this is where the film finds its meat. The film makes us ponder the meaning of our identity and asks if a human being can truly change. If you encountered your old (or young ) self and didn’t like what you saw, would you take the opportunity to try to change it? Would this even work? If the actions of our past inform our future, it would be tempting to get the opportunity to change these actions in order to chart a new future for ourselves. But perhaps the attempt change is moot because our paths our inevitable. This is rich and thoughtful material for a film that was marketed as essentially a shoot ‘em up.
The connection between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis makes this all work. There is an elongated scene in the film in which they sit opposite each other in a diner (picture above) that speaks to everything that can be wonderful about simplicity. The way these two actors play off each other is inspired. As the film progresses, we are introduced to another element that allows for even more complexity. We meet Sara (Emily Blunt, never better) and her son (a confident and focused young Pierce Gagnon) and spend time with them on their farm. The film turns into a film about mothers and sons and the way this relationship can shape our identity. It’s all about our connections. This all ties beautifully back into the story of Joe (young and old), and makes for a truly surprising finale.
Looper never loses sight of its fun, pulpy science fiction premise while also existing as a wonderfully soulful film and an excellent example of the wonders of film formalism. It has terrific actors like Jeff Daniels and Paul Dano adding heft and personality to roles that could have been thrown away. It looks and sounds terrific, all on a relatively low $30 million budget. Rian Johnson proves with Looper that character and ideas are what it takes to make great science fiction films, not hundreds of millions of dollars and explosions. Looper is at once a kickass and violent romp and a work of love and beauty.