Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Looper Has What Films Should Have

My biggest problem with Looper was trying to find an appropriate way to express how much I loved and enjoyed Rian Johnson's third picture.

Looper gives us the set-up immediately via Joseph Gordon-Levitt's opening narration. Thirty years from now, the three biggest differences in the world are that (a) many people have telekinetic powers, but only to a weak degree. (b) Motorcycles can hover a bit above the ground (woo-hoo!). Oh, yeah, and (c) the mafia of the 2070's got its hands on time travel technology, which they use to send people to the past - to kill those people secretly.

This brings us back to J G-L in the present day as he explains the film's title. "Loopers" are the killers in the past who are employed by the future mob. A hooded-and-bound victim arrives at a specific place and time, the Looper shoots that person, then incinerates the body. The targets also come with the killers' payment, and when the Looper receives gold instead of silver, they know that they have just "closed the loop" - by killing their future selves. It's cold, right?

As you might imagine, Gordon-Levitt's character, Joe, is not a very good person. He lives up to the flaws one would expect of a person who signs up for such work: he thinks he's "going steady" with a hooker who's just on the clock, and he takes a lot of drugs. Yet he's better than his peers - he's studying French and saving a (literal?) ton of his earnings for an eventual retirement in Paris.

Then one day on the job, Joe kills himself, and we see his future flash before our eyes.

Here's that moment - please don't watch unless you've seen the movie!

This brings us to old Joe, who is played by Bruce Willis. The ensuing 30 years have changed him into a loving and devoted husband, a more thoughtful and experienced adult than the selfish ass of his younger days. But when the mafia come to take him back in time, they also ice his wife - and the result is that his past gets altered by his future.

Confused yet? It shouldn't really matter because every element of this picture is well-written, well-acted, and well-filmed; hell, the occasions wherein characters discuss the mechanics and results of time travel, someone just says "forget about it, you'll get worked up, then twisted up, and you still won't understand any of it."

And let's be honest: this whole premise is a genre friendly, functionally-stupid use of time travel, anyway. Even if you were stuck in a situation where "it's really hard to get away with murder today" and you have time travel tech to help, there are easier options. You could teleport people to just above (or inside) a volcano. If you can't control the destination but can control the time, you'd send them back 4 or 5 Ice Ages, or to the Jurassic Period. And if you can't control time or destination, you send them back with a time bomb or something like that.

Instead of debating why the mafia chose this method - and was somehow wise enough to not risk stupidly interfering with time by killing their enemies' parents or such - you simply must accept that this is what they chose to do. They didn't gamble on past sports events or warn their past selves about stuff. Past killers + future victims + 1 pit boss from the future (Jeff Daniels, doing fine work here) is the background you simply go with. You might get choked up on the logic of disgruntled aging assassins, but...

Actually, it's quite easy to go with the flow. J G-L's narration feels solid, and the cinematography is both inventive and beautiful. It won't take long for most viewers to get lulled in by these aspects and be in a receptive mood for the uniquely-interesting adventures of a man who truly becomes his own worst enemy.

Quality writer-directors, like Rian Johnson (whom I revere) care about character and story, and the auteur delivers these two things in spades. Added on to this nifty, noir-ish tale is a rare narrative feat - without resorting to clones or evil duplicates, the protagonist and antagonist are the same person, which lends added weight to the narrative and is a challenge for viewers.

The two Joes are, depending on the particular moment, each up to no good, deserving of our sympathy, and/or doing the right thing. Both of them think that they have the right of the situation. And each of these men experience great change and their own arcs which say a lot about them as human beings, much less different iterations of one person.

And, I'll have to foreshadow now what I will certainly have to say when I finally get around to reviewing 12 Monkeys: when Bruce Willis is in a project he's excited about, or he gets a good script and strong direction, he really is an impossibly-compelling actor. If you've already seen the movie, go look at this trailer to get a nice refresher on how Mr. Willis truly can invest himself and you.

No motion picture has ever made me switch sides so often - or have as complex a set of feelings about - its two central, opposing characters. And I want to craft a poem for Rian Johnson over this one writerly-conceit alone.

Yet you don't even have to spend your time on all the tight thematic elements, or ponder deeply the way time travel works. The second and final quarters of Looper's 118 minutes are mostly action. You can just sit back and enjoy, taking the other two segments as a breather from some of the most creative, unnerving, and thrilling conflict that you have ever seen in a film.

Speaking of this pic's "sections," I should address the point at which this movie may lose some viewers. GENERAL STORY SPOILERS from here to the last para: The first half sets us up for a story that is set either in the future world or in the gritty, mob-heavy present day city to which we become accustomed. I would have loved to have passed the last 60 minutes in either setting, but the picture takes a left turn into much quieter territory, and that is another one of the filmmaker's choices that I simply accepted.

Once again, the focus on character and story made it easy for me to embrace this unexpected development. Beautifully-written, and -acted, and -filmed, the transitional portion of Looper found me initially resistant, and then wholly-welcoming. It's here that young Joe encounters Sara (Emily Blunt) while avoiding the mob and his own older self.

For the audience, it's easy to declare a "truce" on both Joes, as they each face a larger, more powerful enemy - the present and future crime organization that they were a part of and are now hunted by. While this threat is great for creating tension and distracting the viewer from a more difficult set of feelings about the leads, it still comes down to Joe vs Joe. Through Sara, the picture injects a fourth element to complicate matters even more. It also provides fuel for the past version of Joe to experience his own character arc.

The one played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets to have his ego-centric worldview altered as he warms up to other people and learns to care about them. The one played by Bruce Willis is a hapless victim driven into a single-minded fix-it machine - thrust into a battle so fierce that he's starting to turn wild.

And for those of you who were paying attention or are writers, part of the narrative beauty of it all is that "old" Joe already went through this exact same personal growth. For this fact alone, I want to ask a genie to give Rian Johnson all the Hollywood clout that Joss Whedon, or Steven Spielberg, or Woody Allen currently possess.

Looper takes its characters and its audience through a cinematic crucible. Both on-screen and in the aisles, expectations and standards are challenged, and viewpoints are incredibly-altered by the events that inform them. In this modern-day, real life landscape of remakes, reboots, and franchises, Johnson and co. gave us a complex and rich character story set in a  brand new scifi world. It has fewer narrative issues than Inception, while also delivering a stronger, less plot-hole-ridden story about the human condition.

I actually preferred another trailer, but it might give away too much.


  1. I love the phrase, "genre friendly, functionally-stupid use of time travel." It does a great job of describing how Looper tells a valid time travel story without sweating the time travel stuff. I'd maybe rephrase it as "genre-smart, functionally stupid" because the story is really intelligently told within its paradoxical bounds.

    The big difference between Looper and Inception isn't that one has fewer plot holes than the other, it's that Inception takes itself (and its plot mechanics) much more seriously than Looper does. As Old Joe says in the movie, "I don't want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws."

    While Inception was apparently set in the present day, which drew more attention to the single sci-fi element of the story, Johnson did some serious (but relatively inexpensive) world-building to set Looper in the near (and not-so-near) future. I think that world-building takes a ton of pressure off the time travel/future assassination mechanics. I freaking adore this film (then again, I loved Inception as well).

    1. Yeah, Inception is playing a different game than Looper. and I think you may have nailed the reason why.

      Thanks for the compliment! I'll have to consider whether I'll adopt your phrase over my own..

      But Inception totally has more plot holes =p

  2. I really enjoyed Looper,too and one of the character developments arcs that stood out to (spoiler alert-you have been warned) is how young Joe was a little bit smarter and less selfish than old Joe.

    During the diner conversation with both Joes, the elder's main motivation to prevent his own death is to save his future wife but as his younger self points out, the best way to do that is to show Young Joe her picture and tell him "Don't hook up with this woman,because you will get her killed". That would've set up a very dramatic but mature "if you truly love her, let her go" scenario but Old Joe wanted to save her only to have her in his life,which is very selfish and therefore,lesser love. I won't get into other plot details but as the story goes on,we can see that young Joe was more able to emotionally adapt than his future self,sort of supporting that old adage about teaching old dogs new tricks:)

    1. What you point out is both apt and weird. For one thing, JG-L is partly doing the child-vs-parent thing, saying "it doesn't have to be that way for me." For another, he's practically a nihilist, so the way he says "I'll just stay away from her" both DOES accurately call out Bruce on his BS, while also seeming trite and dismissive.

      Yes, in the end, Old Joe is too selfish to give up what he had. But he's also being goaded by a cocky brat who only has a small portion of human empathy in him.

      As such, I don't quite see it as emotional adaptation, since Young Joe is close to being a total sociopath. It read more to me like dickish banter - although the performances and Johnson's writing are deep enough to allow that interpretation, too.

      It's a rich film. (thank you Rian (and Shane))

  3. You make a good point there but I do feel by the end that young Joe was starting to develop a bit more emotional maturity there(the diner scene has a lot of dickish banter which is fun at times). It's a shame that this film was so overlooked and under appreciated when it first came out.

    1. You're right, of course. Not only does "young joe" learn to be more of person to other people, but he does start to hit on some real points in that diner. It's just that you can feel he's bs-ing and dismissing his older self at the start.

      It is a shame that this didn't do Inception-level business, but it was still popular, and I hope that all involved soon receive the credit that they so clearly deserve.


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