Looper (United States/China, 2012)

September 25, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Looper Poster

Looper is a tremendous motion picture experience. Not merely a "very good" one, but a great one. It delivers on all possible levels and its missteps are few and minor. It's a rousing science fiction/fantasy tale with a dose of hard-hitting drama, an edgy approach that denies Hollywood's penchant for formula, and a smart script that was crafted with care and an attention to detail. For writer/director Rian Johsnson, Looper represents a worthy follow-up to his earlier offbeat efforts, Brick and The Brothers Bloom. It's the best title on an impressive filmography.

Time travel is a fantasy concept and, as such, is subject only to the rules imposed upon it by a writer. Most filmmakers who elect to employ it resort to clich├ęs and don't spend a lot of time carefully considering the implications of paradoxes. This is not the case with Looper. Although Johnson's interpretation of time travel cannot be said to be any more "realistic" than any other, it feels that way. There are rules that the screenplay does not violate. More importantly, it doesn't resort to "twists" that have become so commonplace that they are no longer surprising.

Looper's time travel backstory is sufficiently detailed for a sense of verisimilitude without getting bogged down in the minutia of detail. It offers well-developed characters, plenty of action and suspense, at least one sequence of bloody mayhem, a dollop of moral ambiguity, and an ending that does not disappoint. It is intellectually satisfying and emotionally powerful. It's a compelling story told in the best manner imaginable, making this unquestionably among the year's best.

The majority of the action unfolds in Kansas, circa 2044. The world isn't that different from what it is today. The cities are bigger and dirtier, but rural living is much the same. There are still corn fields, single family houses, and axes for chopping wood. The criminal element is gaining power, but they do not have the oppressive power they will obtain 30 years in the future. By the early 2070s, time travel has been discovered, but it is illegal and used only by the most powerful criminals. Because bodies cannot be disposed of in the future, those who fun afoul of the syndicates are hog-tied and sent back in time to 2044, where they are met by a "looper" with a shotgun. He finishes the job, takes his reward (bars of silver strapped to the victim), and waits for his next assignment. When the decision is made to terminate a looper's contact, he is sent a future version of himself to eliminate ("closing the loop"). Once he has completed that task, the clock is ticking on 30 years of life.

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper. In fact, he's not just any looper, he's one of the best in the small stable run by gang lord Abe (Jeff Daniels). There comes a time, however, when Joe makes the mistake of harboring a friend (Paul Dano) who has screwed up. Soon after that, Joe is given an assignment that puts him face-to-face with his future self (Bruce Willis). When he hesitates, Old Joe knocks him out and goes on the run. This puts Joe in a bad position. Unless he rectifies things quickly, he will end up dead not just in the future, but in the present as well. A brief conversation with Old Joe gives him some clues about his aged self's intentions and a location where he will eventually go. So Joe travels there, not to protect Sara (Emily Blunt), the woman who owns the house, or her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon), but to stop Old Joe and restore his life. And he has a distinct advantage in any confrontation: he can kill his future self but Old Joe can't reciprocate.

Discussion of Looper in any detail would involve revealing developments, both small and large, that are better discovered on one's own. The story isn't a labyrinth of twists and turns, but it isn't necessarily predictable and there are a few genuine surprises that work effectively because they make sense in the context of the narrative, not because they're thrown at us to provoke a reaction. The time travel element leads to occasional instances of minor confusion but, especially for those familiar with this branch of science fiction/fantasy storytelling, much of what occurs is logical, meaning it plays by the rules Johnson establishes.

My opinion of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an actor has been growing with each new performance and, despite being saddled with odd face prosthetics to make him appear more "Bruce Willis-like," this is no exception. His ability and range continue to impress. This is not an easy role. It requires him to spend a majority of the movie as an anti-hero. He is, after all, a cold-blooded assassin, and a good one at that. Despite that, we develop a connection with him as the seeds of something more noble begin to sprout.

Bruce Willis deserves second billing. This is Gordon-Levitt's film; Willis' role, although crucial, is smaller. With movies like this one and Moonrise Kingdom, it's easy to forgive throw-away garbage like The Cold Light of Day. For the most part, Willis' performance in Looper is dramatic, but he gets an opportunity to kick ass big-time. One of the great strengths of Looper is that it gives Willis, like Gordon-Levitt, a variety of opportunities to transcend stereotypes. He is provided not only with action sequences but scenes of intense dramatic power. There's a moment when you may loathe Old Joe but, as conveyed by Willis, perhaps no more than he loathes himself. And with that hatred comes a disturbing understanding.

The rest of the cast is comprised of supporting actors doing excellent jobs in appearances that vary from a few scenes (Paul Dano) to a significant chunk of the running length (Emily Blunt). There's not a poor performance to be found. Especially good are Jeff Daniels as the surprisingly agreeable head of the syndicate and Piper Perabo as a sympathetic hooker/stripper who interacts in different ways with Joe and his older self. Emily Blunt may be the sexiest wood chopper in the history of motion pictures.

For me, a great film is one in which all the elements are well done. They blend together like a symphony. That's the case here. The screenplay is clever and intelligent; it piqued my interest and kept me involved. The characters are well-rounded and powerfully portrayed. There's plenty of action and suspense, and even a little humor and romance mixed in. There are some profoundly disturbing questions that have no easy answers. (I'm reminded of the time travel hypothetical: If you could travel to 1889 and stand by a crib containing the infant Adolf Hitler, could you strangle the baby?) The art direction is impressive, suggesting a futuristic world that is familiar yet different. There's a strong emotional element to all of this. Looper accomplishes what top-notch cinema should do: it diverts, entertains, and enriches. It will not impact my worldview or the way I go about my daily living, but I will not soon forget it and I am grateful for having seen it.

Looper (United States/China, 2012)

Director: Rian Johnson
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Piper Perabo, Noah Segan, Paul Dano, Pierce Gagnon, Summer Qing
Screenplay: Rian Johnson
Cinematography: Steve Yedlin
Music: Nathan Johnson
U.S. Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 2012-09-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1