A captivating, thought-provoking piece of science fiction, writer-director Rian Johnson’s Looper manages to capture both our eyes and minds despite a (relatively) small budget and an absence of the overdone CGI effects so common in modern sci-fi cinema. It recalls some of the genre’s best recent films, especially Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, and immediately inserts itself within their ranks with startling confidence.
Looper is also one of the most satisfying time travel movies ever made, a genre notoriously picked apart by audiences for perceived plot holes and other issues related to the paradoxical premise. Here, time travel is never really a focal point, its concept and effects not quite understood by the main characters, but by the end it makes perfect sense on both logical and emotional levels.
It’s 2044. In the middle of a corn field, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) stands with a shotgun (a futuristic model called a ‘Blunderbuss’). Out of nowhere, a man appears in front of Joe, a hood over his head and his arms bound behind his back. Joe empties the shotgun into the man’s chest, collects his payment from the corpse, and disposes of the body.
You see, time travel has not been invented yet, but it will be in the 2070s, where it (naturally) becomes highly illegal. The mafia gets their hands on the technology, and because the disposal of bodies in the future has become infeasible, targets are sent back to the past to be executed. Joe is a ‘Looper’, the hitman who takes care of these targets in the past. One of the targets will be Joe’s future self, but Joe won’t know which one until after he pulls the trigger. It’s called ‘closing the loop’, and is all part of the bargain.
This ingenious premise, outlined in the film’s initial minutes, is just the beginning of Looper’s story. The film also stars Jeff Daniels as Abe, who was sent back to the past to manage the Loopers, Paul Dano as Seth, a fellow Looper whose story frighteningly foreshadows the film’s future events, Piper Perabo as a friendly stripper, and Noah Segan in a breakout role as Kid Blue, Abe’s inept ‘Gat Man’ and enforcer.
And then there’s Bruce Willis, as Joe’s daunting older self. I had all but given up on Bruce after his roles in the straight-to-DVD-quality features Setup, Catch .44, and The Cold Light of Day (not heard of them? Consider yourself lucky), but his turns in this and Moonrise Kingdom (two of my favorite films this year) show that he’s still capable of choosing the right material.
Minor gripe: Willis and Levitt really don’t resemble each other, and little effort is made to enhance their similarities. The film contains a terrific montage of Joe’s criminal life over 30 years, but the sudden shift from Levitt to Willis is jarring.
Among the film’s other riches, Looper also features one of the best performances by a child actor that I’ve ever seen (and this is coming in year that 6-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis could (and should) win an Oscar for her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild).
That would be Pierce Gagnon (who also seems to be around six), as Cid, who perfectly spouts dialogue years ahead of his age yet also manages to convey the innocence of a young child. I kept imagining how Phantom Menace would have turned out with a performance from a child actor like this at the center. Emily Blunt is also excellent as Sara, Cid’s mother.
I’ve avoided detailing much of the plot; watching how all these diverse pieces fit together is one of the film’s real joys. This is clearly the product of a singular vision that knows exactly what it wants.
Looper contains some dazzling cinematography by Steve Yedlin, which includes a lot of effectively intense long takes during action scenes (a la Children of Men) and some of the swirling camerawork that might be more at home in a Gaspar Noé film. The haunting original score is by Nathan Johnson.
Director Johnson previously made Brick, which also starred Levitt, an exceptional genre-bending high school noir that I’ve been telling everyone who will listen about, and followed it up with the disappointing Wes Anderson-ish con man romance The Brothers Bloom. He’s also worked on AMC’s Breaking Bad, directing the series’ most surreal episode, Fly.
Looper is Johnson at his very best, a startlingly assured and confident piece of sci-fi that showcases a young director in complete control of his craft. This isn’t the type of film that will be up for awards come Oscar season, but it’s one of the most satisfying experiences you’ll have in a cinema this year, and something you’ll rewatch for years to come.