You can’t blame a guy for trying. When writer-director Rian Johnson burst out of the gate with 2005’s Brick, an inventive, fleet-footed reworking of classic noir tropes in a hard-boiled high-school setting, there was a general sense that Johnson might well represent a “third way” for new American indies; his sensibilities belonged to neither the hipster-confessional set nor the multiplex; the film was relentlessly entertaining, but never stupid. His second effort, The Brothers Bloom, boasted a vastly increased budget and an all-star cast, but erred on the side of the too-cute, replete with quirky characters and an endless set of winking plot twists. While Bloom‘s merits are still a matter of dispute, his latest, Looper, makes it clear that he’s still a burgeoning talent interested in toying with elements of genre and style that many contemporary filmmakers take for granted.
The film’s breakneck first hour establishes a tricky premise and a very detailed futurescape. Set in 2044, Looper reteams Johnson with Brick star Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe, a hitman referred to as a “Looper” thanks to his specialized tasks: in the even further future, time travel exists, but is only available to criminal syndicates, who transport undesirables to the past, where the Loopers swiftly execute them, then dispose of the bodies, ensuring that in the future, no trace of said undesirable exists. It’s a simple gig that’s handsomely rewarded, but there’s a catch: ultimately, Loopers must terminate their own contracts quite literally, by executing their own future selves from 30 years later. That’s all well and good for Joe, whose drug-addled, high-rolling existence keeps him busy while he plans for his post-”retirement” time overseas. When it comes time for Joe to “close his loop,” he comes face to face with his future self, played by Bruce Willis.
That things go south from there is probably all that bears mentioning. Also involved are a casually-dressed mob boss named Abe (a killer Jeff Daniels), one of his right-hand men, an incompetent “gat man” (Johnson regular Noah Segan), a fellow Looper (Paul Dano), and a tough-talking farmgirl named Sarah (Emily Blunt).
Over the course of that establishing period, Johnson shoehorns in enough ideas, visual trickery, and violent imagery to fuel an entire career; the movie crackles with energy, each exchange loaded with purpose, each bit of slang and futurespeak managing to feel lived-in rather than silly and forced. When the film finally settles in for the long haul in a considerably more pastoral location than the vleak urban sprawl of the firs hour or so, however, the pace slackens, and viewers who figure out early just where this is all headed may quite understandably grow restless. An unfortunate tendency also emerges, somewhat counter to the emotional gray-area territory that fuels the best time-travel narratives, to divide fates into binary “good” and “bad” possibilities. To say more would be a disservice.
Thankfully, Johnson has already proven himself a pro at eliciting careful, attention-grabbing performances that simultaneously manage to avoid feeling showy, which helps to make up for the somewhat disappointing plot turn. Gordon-Levitt, trippily made up to appear more Willis-like, strikes a particularly tricky balance, communicating Joe’s selfish, impulsive, entitled nature without making him an alienating figure; Willis, who seems to fare very well in auteurist time-travel movies (see also Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, a clear influence), dials it down to excellent effect here. Segan, who should really be getting more work, is funny but never cartoonish as the flailing henchman, and Blunt is one of the more convincingly tough love interests in recent movie history.
Violent, funny, and sometimes visionary, even if its final reels take us to places we’ve seen before, Looper certainly isn’t Johnson’s masterpiece, but it contains more than enough invention and energy to make one wonder what his body of work will look like by the time we reach Looper‘s dicey future.