‘Looper’ blends genres and styles to create something fresh
Directed by Rian Johnson
Written by Rian Johnson
It is tempting to write that it does not get any better than a new film from Rian Johnson starring seemingly everybody’s favourite actor of the past couple years, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as well as Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt. However, last week saw the publication of my review for The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, and so to not contradict one’s self, suffice to say that a new Rian Johnson film is reason to get excited. Like the aforementioned Anderson, Johnson is never in a rush to make his projects. Brothers Bloom, his second effort, premiered at TIFF four years ago after all. Another similarity between the two directors is that each new project brings a new challenge to the fold. It is always different from the last and typically different from the rest of what arrives in theatres. Johnson’s latest, Looper, continues that very trend.
The year is 2044, the place is the United States. As the film’s protagonist, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), explains in a voice over during the opening scenes, time travel has not been invented yet. However, in a unique twist of fate, voyaging through time is possible 30 years from then, although its most prominent utility is far more nefarious than altruistic. Gangsters are sending clandestine hit targets back in time to be liquidated by loopers, ordinary guns for hire equipped with blunderbusses, large handheld cannons made for power rather than accuracy. Joe happens to be one such looper, earning a respectable living by killing people he does not know, partying at night with colleagues like Seth (Paul Dano) and trying to get closer to the apple of his eye, Suzie (Piper Perabo). A looper’s career always comes to an unpleasant end however, as the individual’s older self is kidnapped 30 years in the future and sent back into time to be killed by none other than that person’s younger self. Allowing one’s older self to escape creates an unexpected rift in the process and makes the looper’s employer, mob boss Abe (Jeff Daniels), very angry. Be that as it may, Joe is caught off guard for an instant the day he comes face to face with his older self (Bruce Willis), an instant which allows Joe senior to flee his execution. Now, the 2044 Joe must track down and destroy himself, literally, before Abe finds him, all the while his older self in serach of a young boy who, thirty years in the future, will have a huge impact on all of their lives.
‘Johnson not only presents a vision of the future that is appealing in its deceptive simplicity, but one that is inherently believable because of it.’
Closer inspection on any director’s new film and analyzing how it may or may not fit within that person’s oeuvre is always a fascinating exercise. Some directors, for instance, are dedicated to constantly reinventing themselves, tackling completely different genres and subjects. Nevertheless, even filmmakers such as they can have traits which link their projects, be it in terms of casting choices, story types or the aesthetic makeup of their films. With three movies, Rian Johnson has unquestionably found the ability to tell bold new tales on each occasion, yet there is quite the curious element which can be detected, rather easily in fact, in the first two, an element that ultimately plays a spectacular role in Looper. Brick is set in a modern day high school, yet the speech pattern of its characters as well as its plot, harken back to classic film noir. The Brothers Bloom was also a modern tale, although in its case, various elements of the production design, most notably the clothing of the two protagonists, felt like they were from a different, bygone era. In each example Johnson has various story related elements from different time crash into one another in seamless fashion. In a very ‘meta’ sense, the director’s previous two films are precusors to his latest. In Looper, the meshing of aesthetics from different eras is much more flagrant. For one, the story is set in over 30 years from today, yet architecturally cities look very much as they do today, save some futuristic neon lighting choices. The main character, Joe, dresses and combs himself in the same manner as the bad boy characters from the American movies of the 50s and 60s, what with the hair finely combed to one side and the leather jackets. Even the pistols loopers and other mobsters carry around are similar in style to some incredibly old firearms. Kid Blue (Noah Segan) is equipped with what amounts to an old, western colt, for example. Juxtaposed against this are fanciful cellular phones and of course time travel, the most far out, science-fiction-heavy ingredient of all. What results from all of this mish-mashing of disparate styles is a movie that in many ways feels timeless. Nearly everything about the picture is recognizable, presenting a world people can relate to on several levels. A science-fiction movie set in the future need not adopt a psychedelic, futuristic look just for the sake of it. Johnson not only presents a vision of the future that is appealing in its deceptive simplicity, but one that is inherently believable because of it.
Staying true to another one of the prominent characteristics of his two previous efforts, Johnson presents a story in which each individual is fully developed and driven by a cause which he or she feels is just. By the midway point of the film, shortly after young and old Joe have had their first skirmish, young Joe takes refuge in a rural home owned by a single mother (Emily Blunt) and her young boy (Pierce Gagnon). As the stakes are set into place and the audience slowly begins to understand everyone’s importance in the film, the viewer becomes keenly aware that all three people, the two Joes and the single mother, have a perfectly sensible, morally justifiable reason for behaving the way they do. The problem is that none of their respective goals are necessarily compatible with one another, hence the conflicts which arise out of their predicaments. The emotional investment on the part of the audience can easily shift from one scene to the next.
‘Whereas the interpersonal relationships are what satisfy most, the action just might be what surprises most, at least coming from Rian Johnson.’
While the picture does invest a reasonable amount of time in developing the complicated and frequently strained relationships, Looper definitely aims to thrill with a handful of particularly solid action sequences. Granted, Rian Johnson is not known for being much of an action director, and although what is unleashed on screen is not out of this world, much of it is wonderfully intense. Johnson’s great eye for cinematic, pleasing visuals extends to his gun fights, of which there are more than enough for those hoping the film will deliver on the high octane attitude the trailer promises. The sense of geography, especially insofar as where each person is in relation to the others, is very well handled, almost unexpectedly so. Whereas the interpersonal relationships are what satisfy most, the action just might be what surprises most, at least coming from Rian Johnson.
If there is one element that doesn’t reach top marks, it would have to be the stretch of the story which sees Gordon-Levitt’s Joe develop an attachment to Cid and his mother while the older Joe tracks down the boy in attempt to prevent something horrible from happening thirty years down the road. Emily Blunt is a terrific actress, as is Gordon-Levitt (his attention to Bruce Willis’ ticks is both comical in the good sense and impressive. He is playing the latter’s younger version of himself, after all!), and lest anyone get the wrong impression, their scenes are essential to the story. Without them, the climax would never carry the dramatic weight that it does, therefore, in the end, that sequence does work well enough. That being said, its pacing is far, far slower than anything that precedes or proceeds it. Character traits are well set up before yet the film clicks along at a beautiful gunfire pace. Here, it feels, if only occasionally, like a breather that stretches a few minutes too long. Coupled with the pacing issue is the lack of Bruce Willis during this same sequence. His character was so interesting when encountering Gord-Levitt’s Joe, so to suddenly have him appear but sporadically every 10 minutes or so is something of a disappointment.
All in all, it is extremely tempting to argue that Looper is Rian Johnson’s finest effort to date, although it may be best to allow for more time to elapse to better digest the film. Anybody who read the Friday Noir review of Brick knows that movie is highly regarded by this movie reviewer. Brothers Bloom is also a supremely pleasurable experience. The whole argument about which film is best may very well be moot for they are all fantastic. Here’s hoping Looper does exceptionally well with the public.