Looper is the third feature length film from writer/ director Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) who has been swallowed up by the Hollywood machine to direct Star Wars Episode VIII. Looper is a neat little time travel movie set in the not so distant future starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe: a Looper, a man who kills people who are sent back in time by a crime syndicate in the future. Apparently it’s super hard to dispose of a body in the future, so sending it to the past to be killed and left there is a sure fire way to keep things under wraps.
When Loopers sign up for this gig, they are on contract for 30 years which when up is when they are sent back in time to be killed by their past selves, closing the loop. If the loop doesn’t get closed neatly, the mob that hires out the Loopers will make sure both ends of the loop are closed off. Get it? Got it? Good. So, naturally, one day Joe happens to show up to perform a hit only to find himself face to face with an older version of himself (Bruce Willis) who is ready and willing to fight him. Older Joe escapes, and present day(ish) Joe has to track him down and kill him to close the loop before the mob closes it for him.
I really like movies about a main character who is in pursuit and being pursued at the same time. It adds an ebb and flow to the tension that keeps things moving along at a nice pace and usually results in a lot more natural progression of events in the film. Looper is no different. Joe’s got constantly shifting goals throughout the film, and the interruptions and setbacks caused by the gang and by his older self offer a wide range of pickles for Joe to get himself out of. Looper runs for almost exactly two hours, but never feels like it drags or needs scenes cut (except for one, but I’ll get to that). Johnson is also a master at following a cliché or trope almost right to its end, then banking a ninety degree turn somewhere else that catches you by surprise but still makes narrative sense. Go into Looper with as little information about the plot as possible (don’t worry, there are only minimal spoilers here), and you’ll be amazed on how far off you were when you tried to guess the ending of the film in the first and second acts.
One of the standout things in Looper for me was the way it looked. I have never heard of Rian Johnson until recently (it was on the recommendation of a co-worker), and after seeing Looper I’m really interested in checking out the rest of his stuff, and am more excited for Star Wars Episode VIII than I was two hours ago. Looper excelled visually in both the directing and worldbuilding aspects. The cinematography and directing was on point and stylized, but reserved enough not to be in your face about it. Lots of close ups with splashes of colour in an otherwise noir-esque world and a fair amount of extreme wide shots making the audience feel almost like onlookers, peeping in on whatever happens to be transpiring in the film. Johnson definitely strikes me as a director most comfortable and proficient in directing more pensive and slower material, because when the action ramps up in Looper, I found it to be quite lacking. Most of the action is gunplay, and while Johnson does an okay job setting up the geogaphy of each scene, the action is cut a little too fast for my liking, leaving us with second-long shots featuring the backs of stuntmen’s heads. It’s nothing too glaring, but it’s one of the few things that are holding Looper back from being a great movie in my eyes. While the camera floats and moves beautifully, its subject, Kansas City circa 2044 looks phenomenal, too. The world is cold and dark , but similar to Johnson’s directing, is never in your face. There isn’t tons of crazy technology whirring about in each scene. Most people still drive regular cars, but you can see that they’ve been modified to run on solar panels rather than gasoline. People still dress like people. Buildings still look like buildings. I’d argue Looper has a similar level of detail and design put into its world that Her did, with it truly feeling like the not-too-distant future. This looks like a real, lived in world that could be ours in 27 years.
The acting in Looper is also pretty commendable. Gordon-Levitt kills it as a young Bruce Willis, getting all his mannerisms down pat, and sporting a ridiculously uncanny prosthetic to make his facial structure look more like Willis’. It seems kind of odd at first because of how used I was to Gordon-Levitt’s face, but the more screen him he had, the more and more natural it looked. The secondary characters that crop up played by Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, and Paul Dano are all pretty well acted, and Looper showcases one of the better child actors I’ve seen in a looooong time. Pierce Gagnon plays Cid, the child of Sarah (Emily Blunt), and he is so good, you forget that he’s just a 10 year old kid on a set surrounded by cameras and microphones and lights.
Speaking of lights, Looper borrows heavily from the film noir genre of movies. Not just the guns and gangsters subject matter or even the hard, stark lighting in a lot of scenes, but in the character archetypes, too. Young Joe is introduced as a cold and distant killer gripped by the vices of the city, and by the end of the film, you have a full cast of characters, all of whom are flawed and sit uncomfortably in a moral grey area. Nobody seems to have a target painted on them for being a one type of character or another, but everybody is written that they could have their comeuppance at any moment.
There are however, a few things that act as a detriment to Looper in my mind. The introduction of people with mild telekinetic powers early in the film seemed unnecessary and didn’t really work to further the plot or add to any of the themes of the film. It felt a little forced and thrown in “just ’cause it sounds wicked sweet, bro!” and not to help develop any particular part of the film. I also was not a big fan of the famous diner scene, where the two Joes and meeting and when younger Joe begins questioning how time travel works, older Joe just tells him to shut up and accept it, and that is that. People fawned over that scene because of how witty and smart it was, but I think that people are confusing witty with self-aware in this case. That scene was not put in for the characters. Young Joe knows that time travel exists. It’s the basis for his job. If he were Marty McFly meeting with Doc Brown in a diner to talk about time travel, sure, Doc Brown can tell Marty not to worry about and I’ll believe it and go on with my day. The diner scene was for the audience, plopped into the movie to silence the trolls and hard sci-fi nerds who would whine incessantly about how the time travel in Looper would be total bullshit. I don’t care. Time travel doesn’t exist. If you want to write it into your story, you get to make up the rules, and you don’t have to tell them all explicitly to the audience. You also don’t have to explicitly not tell them to your audience with the world’s least subtle wink and nudge. The scene felt out of place, ham fisted, and too meta for this movie. If this was the Scream of time travel movies, sure, I’d run with it. But Looper flies a little too close to the sun there.
Also, for the amazing make up team that worked on Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s outstanding transformation into Bruce Willis for this movie, didn’t anyone notice that Willis has detached earlobes and Gordon-Levitt has attached ones? It’s something so tiny that it makes a less-than-zero impact on the film, but once you notice it, you notice it for the whole movie. You had the power to transform one human’s face into another human’s face and direct him so well he can capture every little facial tick of his subject, but you forget tack on a little set of earlobes onto his ears? C’mon guys, the immersion is in the details, especially for a movie like this.
All in all, Looper was a solid action crime flick with a sci-fi twist to it. Rian Johnson creates a gritty and realistic future that could easily be our reality in a handful of decades and films it with panache and confidence. The acting is great, and the story twists and turns in ways you won’t expect, always leading you right down to its intense conclusion. I don’t know if its worthy of the Netflix categorization of “cerebral sci-fi” which would put it among Arrival, Moon, or Under the Skin, but it is definitely worth a watch for any fan of crime films or time travel movies.