Time in its prime – Looper review

Looper – Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt. Directed by Rian Johnson. Rated MA. By Simon Miraudo.

There’s a difference between science-fiction that inspires the question ‘What if?’ and science fiction that leaves us monosyllabically muttering ‘Huh?’ A film’s ability to confound is not immediate certification of its brilliance. It’s a revelation, then, that Rian Johnson‘s time-travel thriller Looper can communicate its elaborate conceit crystal-clearly, and then get to the business of asking some confronting questions of its characters and audience. The ideas are big, but the storytelling is economical. Johnson, working with his largest budget yet, also knows he has to deliver the money shots expected in a sci-fi spectacular, and Looper too has its fair share of GIF-worthy moments. It’s nice to have a movie worm its way into your brain and leave you wondering and wanting more, and for the mechanics of the plot hold up to further scrutiny. Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s fake eyebrows, I suspect, would not withstand such close examination.

Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, an assassin in Kansas City circa 2044. Time travel has not been invented, he informs us, but it will be. Thirty years further in the future, mobsters will send back targets they need hit, and ‘Loopers’ like Joe will take them out and dispose of their corpses. It’s the cleanest way to get rid of a body, and the only loose ends are the Loopers themselves. While Joe waits for the day future-Joe is propelled backwards to be assassinated (thus closing the loop), he parties with his wealthy buddies, paying no mind to the increasingly decrepit nature of his city. Shanty towns have been erected in the streets, chaos reigns, and a mild telekinetic mutation discovered in some humans has not delivered salvation like many had hoped. The clock ticks on, of course, and eventually Old Joe (Bruce Willis) appears, ripe for the murdering. Oddly, his head has not been bagged like the others usually are, and his hands are untied. After hesitating for the first time in a long time, Old Joe gets the jump on the young buck, and goes on the run. Needless to say, this is a no-no in Looper circles.

Jo-Go is decked out in prosthetics to resemble Willis; it’s a guise I like to call ‘the Spruce Bruce.’ It’s a rather convincing get-up, and Gordon-Levitt has Willis’ mannerisms and sly smile down pat. When Joe the younger and Joe the older finally face-off, however, it becomes a sotto voce competition between the two actors, and this is more funny than it is threatening. The physical similarities are a nice touch, though they’re not entirely necessary to the thrust of the plot. The plight of the Looper is only considered in the first act. The latter part concerns two people with the same genetic material – one having lived a full life, the other only half – and how their experiences take them down totally different roads. In essence, writer-director Johnson is asking the age old ‘What if?’ question: if your future self came to warn you of mistakes you were set to make along the line, would you change your ways? Later, it ponders that other age old query; the most challenging issue in the picture: could you kill a baby if you knew it would grow up to be Hitler?

The Führer is absent from Looper; in his place is another violent dictator known only as The Rainmaker. Old Joe is intent on taking out Cid (Pierce Gagnon), the child of hardened farm girl Sara (Emily Blunt), knowing he will eventually become a cruel killer and world-crusher. Young Joe falls under the isolated family’s charms, and stakes out their barn to protect them from, well, himself. Maybe if Sara raises Cid right, she can keep him from his sadistic destiny. But if that were true, wouldn’t the future have already been changed, and Old Joe zapped out of existence?

It was both a comfort and a concern to learn Shane Carruth of Primer fame had assisted Johnson in figuring out the mechanics of time travel here; a comfort because Primer is one of the finest time travel features ever made (and on a shoestring, no less), and a concern because it requires dozens of watches to totally unpack. I’ve only seen Looper once, and while I feel satisfied with my understanding of how the story played out, there is a lingering sensation that I’m missing something. Johnson’s fantastic debut Brick and his underrated follow-up The Brothers Bloom – seriously, how could people not love Rachel Weisz breakdancing? – both unfold like magic tricks, with the biggest shock saved for the very end. Am I expecting too much from Looper and digging for a final twist where this is none? Or has Johnson deliberately layered his conclusion with clues that have sent me on this brain-bending journey? Is this a failing of the movie, or of my miniscule brain? And aren’t hypothetical questions just a lazy way for a reviewer to raise points without actually addressing them? I can only answer one of those – the last one – and the answer is ‘Yes’.

Don’t get me wrong; those persistent inquiries are pleasant ones to have, and certainly more encouraging than the ones I had after the nearly-great Prometheus (where I walked away baffled mostly by the decisions made by the screenwriter in the final act). Gordon-Levitt, who starred as the teenage gumshoe in Brick, is at his best with Johnson behind the camera, and delivers a truly charismatic lead performance. Willis seems to care about his work here, which is already a significant improvement on some of his more recent parts, and he ably conveys Old Joe’s moral quandaries (to see him evolve from a well-meaning bad-guy to a misguided and dangerous good-guy is quite harrowing). Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels – as the bored king of the Loopers – and Garret Dillahunt – an officer on the hunt for both Joes – are also excellent in their supporting turns. The real star is Johnson, who with his third picture cements his reputation as a thoughtful, visually-inventive, and eager-to-surprise young filmmaker. Looper is his most audacious piece, and sees him follow in the footsteps of Christopher Nolan. If Brick is his Memento, and The Brothers Bloom his The Prestige, Looper is his Inception. For what it’s worth, Johnson has a far better sense of humour and understanding of visual language than Nolan. Whether he’ll one day be gifted with an opportunity to attempt something as ambitious as the Dark Knight trilogy, only time will tell. He’s earned it, and so much more.

4/5

Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Looper arrives in Australian cinemas September 27, 2012.

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