Directed by Rian Johnson
Here we are again, two minutes into the future where our lives are better…and worse…and trench coats are always in style. Sadly, the future we see in Looper is one we are speeding toward ourselves. Evidence of economic collapse is all around. Citizens don’t leave the house without a firearm and barely twitch before bearing down on a stranger eyeing up their possessions. Homeless individuals roam the countryside like refugees of a war-torn country. Among all the chaos and street violence, organized crime families pull the strings, affecting your daily life from top to bottom in ways so clandestine you’ll never know they had a hand in your misery.
One such arm of the families is comprised of “Loopers.” Just like mobsters of days long dead had their clean-up men, the Loopers are charged with the disappearance of many a sorry soul. These faceless persons travel from a distant future to the past (still our future), where barely a breath passes their lips before brutal execution at the end of a gun. From there the body is destroyed, the Looper is paid and the world scratches along none the wiser.
Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is one such Looper, living a life of sex, drugs and excess among his brethren, but wise enough to squirrel a portion of his blood money away for that day when he might need to run. His world is rocked with the increasing frequency with which his family is “closing the loop,” a term used to describe when the bosses send a Looper back in time to be executed by himself. Can’t get more morose than that! Since the victim has his head bagged, the Looper doesn’t know what he has done until he inspects his payment, which shifts from silver to gold when his loop is closed. After that there’s an extended retirement party followed by years of waiting before the execution comes to pass.
Let’s face it, folks; in Hollywood the future is almost always creepy. It is clear Joe is dreading the day this happens to him, and as luck would have it, when the time comes, he gets to look his older John McClane mug right in the eyes…and that is enough to make him pause. As we’ve seen in the trailers, this provides a window for Old Joe (Willis) to make his escape.
What comes next is a story with superb sci-fi intelligence, the likes of which would make Kurt Vonnegut applaud, draped in a noiresque sadness we have not seen since Blade Runner. As the story unfolds, we are allowed equal time with Old Joe and New Joe (or we can call him Crystal Joe, like the Pepsi, because it is funnier.) Old Joe took the ride into the past, risking certain death, to attempt to change things and assure his future has a bit less misery. Saying more will ruin the sweet nuances I’d rather you find out for yourself. Changing his fate does not come without a price. Innocent blood must be spilled. Meanwhile, New Joe is in pursuit, thinking if he can close his loop, his life of numb excess can continue, but the sadness in his eyes tells the viewer he secretly longs for more. Now Old Joe is closing in on the one thing he feels will free himself of future loss, and New Joe lies in wait, contemplating happiness for the first time in his life, but he may have to kill himself to take hold of it. It is sci-fi Shakespeare at its best.
If you are anything like me, you cringe at the thought of another futurescape. The flying cars… the floating advertisements… the robohookers. We’ve seen it all before. More importantly, we’ve seen it done very well and very poorly. While Looper lives very much in the future (where, to our dismay, some men do fancy a striking trench coat), it does not begin and end there. Instead of being a major set-piece, the future and its trappings provide added detail and devices for an uber-creative writer to play with. This is to say we are in the future, but you are not forced with spectacle and lens flare every three minutes or infinite shots of the high-tech city skyline which scream, “FUTURE!!! YOU ARE IN THE FUTURE!! OUR FUCKING CARS FLY AND STUFF!!! THREE BOOBS!!! CRAZY!!??!! OMG!! Looper goes to great pains to blend future tech into the landscape like a painter using a wet wash to delicately fade out a background. Simultaneously, intense sci-fi science is woven into every facet of the story, moving beyond the simple notions of “What would happen if a time traveler changed one thing in the past.” The result is a beautiful, almost epic tale of love and loss and redemption with no apologies and no regrets, capped with an unknown quantity you would have barely guessed at in trailers and commercials. You mean…a movie kept something a secret until you see it for yourself??!! That, in and of itself, is a small miracle.
Acting chops in Looper are top-notch. There are many moments where a character says more with his eyes than he does from his lips. Jeff Daniels plays Mob Boss Abe with an air of unpredictability. His eyes go from nurturing to vengeful in a tenth of a second. He steals his scenes. Emily Blunt plays Sara, a woman struggling to keep her tiny world safe from the savage outside world and, in some respect, is desperate to shield that same world from what is inside her own. Her vulnerability is equal to her courage in the face of danger, which is a win for heroines across the globe! Tiny little Pierce Gagnon is Cid…one of those kids you talk to, then squint at and say, “Are you sure you’re not 20??” This kid will leave you in disbelief. He’s just amazing. He’ll break your heart, have you going “AWWW” uncontrollably and then crack you up all in the same scene. While the facial transformations of Joseph Gordon-Levitt take a little getting used to, the man lays it all on the line, portraying an unflinching murderer with a glint in his eye that makes you think his mind is actually a thousand miles away. That performance alone is enough to move you. Then there is Bruce Willis, who doesn’t seem to be given as much emotional weight to chew on. Even when faced with committing horrific acts that shake rebuilt morals, he seems distant. I just wasn’t feeling his plight enough to be torn between heroes like the script seemingly wanted you to be. This does not take away from the entirety of the piece, though. A little lost connection could not take away from what was achieved here.
With beautiful and diverse landscapes, an underplayed cyber future in counterpoint to crippling poverty all around and a highly intelligent script bringing unique ideas to the table with almost indie movie sensibilities, I challenge you not to love this movie and, immediately after watching, fight the urge to tell someone you wished you owned it already. A story like this could have gone off the rails very easily with too much future-flash, snappy back and forth between Old and New Joes or even an overdose of the secret element in the film…basically everything Hollywood will tell you audiences go crazy for. Looper is left alone to be its own being with a beating heart full of hopes and dreams that come across as genuine. There is an air of desperation across the faces of nearly every character in the film…and that alone is a triumph. You can just hear a studio executive watching moments of this film yelling, “No, no, this is a downer. Looper sounds like a fun thrill ride!!”
Often there is great beauty in sadness, and so Looper is allowed to… well… just be itself. Let’s hope audiences are grabbed by the trailers and then, upon seeing there is way more to this film than big name sci-fi action, come back home and tell 10 friends. This is a movie that deserves an excellent box office to show Hollywood we actually like thinking and feeling. I can dream.
4 1/2 out of 5