Film Review: Looper
Why have some people felt it necessary to burden Looper with such ridiculous levels of hyperbole? In the months leading up to the release of Rian Johnson’s third film (also marking another crackling collaboration with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who can surely consider himself well and truly A-Listed this year), the steady escalation in the numbers of critics fuelling the tidal wave of anticipation left audiences everywhere genuinely expecting something an event: a film of such magnitude that its shockwaves will reverberate through the science fiction genre for years to come.
As it happens, Looper is nothing of the sort. That’s not to say it’s a bad film or an anti-climax, but it’s definitely not up there with The Matrix in terms of breaking fresh ground and expanding the parameters of what good sci-fi can achieve. In truth, Johnson has taken familiar elements from other films and bound them together into something which still feels fresh and original. There are shades of Blade Runner and The Terminator, and a sprinkling of Akira’s DNA, but these references are made respectfully. Instead of becoming overbearing, they serve to enrich the whole rather than distracting from the film’s integrity. So no, it’s not completely original, and it’s not going to blow your mind, but it’ll definitely entertain and intrigue you like little else released this year.
The film is set in 2044, at a time when the world is in a state of spiritual and economic collapse. As the 99% suffer in a poverty-stricken landscape, Joe (Gordon-Levitt) lives a comfortable-but-lonely life, escaping his isolation with the help of an eye-drop drug and driving flash cars. He can afford such commodities by working as a ‘looper’, a hit man who kills and disposes of victims sent back in time from 2074, when organised crime syndicates have a firm monopoly on illegalised time travel for their own purposes. But in order to tie off any loose ends, a looper will eventually find his future self sent back as a target. After execution, the looper is rewarded in gold bullion as a retirement payment, and given thirty years of life until being tracked down and sent back in time for execution. The consequence of failing to execute a target is a death sentence.
When the day finally comes for Joe to kill his future self, he hesitates, and his older incarnation (Bruce Willis) escapes, forcing both men to go on the run. Both Joes now have their own agendas: Young Joe must find and kill his future self in order to escape the clutches of the mafia, and Old Joe attempts to track down and assassinate a child who will grow up to become a kingpin of the underworld in 2074, called The Rainmaker. (If all this sounds very confusing, the film explains this much better than I do.)
With such an exciting concept under its belt, Looper could easily have become a film lost to a nightmare of its own making. Thankfully, though, Johnson doesn’t dwindle for too long on the twisty subject of time-travel, and while it may grate on some viewers that the paradoxes are never fully cleaned up, it’s a mercy that Looper doesn’t turn into a torturous head-scratcher. Instead, the film becomes a journey exploring the conflicting interests of both versions of Joe, and the emotional core of the story certainly isn’t papered over as both protagonists find their moralities tested. Young Joe has to confront his own mortality head-on, while Old Joe finds himself dislocated when his previous existence is torn away. With his character mourning for a lost love and on a self-appointed mission which he finds nigh-on impossible to undertake, Willis is given one of his best roles in years. Delving beneath that steely exterior, Johnson explores the dark heart of a tortured individual, most particularly in one sequence halfway through the film, when Old Joe performs a horrific act which most would consider totally irredeemable. The sight of Old Joe buckling as he begins to register the cost of his actions is incredibly powerful, and the result is one of the most arresting scenes of the year.
The first half of the film is close to perfect, and delivers everything you could hope for from the trailers. The exposition is kept lean, the action stylish and well-paced, and one particularly gruesome set-piece involving Paul Dano’s looper lends a real sense of danger to the film. Yet it seems that a lot of people (including some of those with whom I saw the film) have left the cinema feeling underwhelmed by the ending. True, the second act does downshift to explore a more intimate scenario, set on a farm owned by Emily Blunt’s Sara. More details are layered into the plot and the action is left behind, and while this gives the characters more space to breathe, a slight sag is still felt after the explosive first hour.
The second half of the film is still very good, with more new flavours introduced in the form of a telekinetic threat. Some might find a particular element of this segment more ridiculous than deadly, but it’s proof of Johnson’s admirable ambition and conviction that he manages to make the outcome more disturbing rather than frivolous. The formidable action resurfaces in the final act, and although there is a twist which many people will see coming, it is handled with real pathos and caps the film satisfactorily, bolstered by some great acting. Gordon-Levitt thoroughly convinces as the younger incarnation of Willis, right down to every tick and jaw-clench, with the illusion assisted by some smartly-rendered prosthetic work. Elsewhere, Blunt delivers in spades as a counterweight to the male-dominated universe, with Sara’s vulnerability kept in check beneath a strong, independent attitude.
It’s far from faultless, with a couple of missed beats here and there, and as mentioned, the time-travel paradoxes themselves will baffle more than a few viewers. And although the action sequences are never less than exciting, there are moments when some of them feel a little short-lived. Johnson’s deft writing has kept things tasteful, and it’s good to leave some moments to the imagination, but there are a few points in the film when you kind of wish he’d let a scene linger for a little longer before the dust settles.
Ultimately, though, despite what all the hype would have you believe, and despite all those action cues and set-pieces, Looper is a slow-burner. You might leave the cinema feeling a little disheartened at first, especially given the way the pace of the film cools off after its jam-packed opening. But it’s in the (hours / days / weeks) afterwards that you’ll slowly realise what a profound effect the film had on you. Tiny ideas will slither into your head; you’ll remember small, intriguing nuances and little moments of revelation. Visually striking, absorbing and with countless talking points, Looper is brave, ambitious film-making, which doesn’t rewrite the rulebook, but it does weave its own magic nonetheless, like all good sci-fi should.
Johnson’s third feature-length is a remarkable picture sparkling with life. Put the hype and logic to one side for a moment, and you’ll find that Looper is a savvy, intelligent thriller equal to the sum of its parts.