The main point that my English teacher has been making while we study Emily Bronte’s seminal novel Wuthering Heights is that choices and repercussions have a very cyclical nature. They are of the sort to affect us, whether in a microscopic way or not, and everyone else forever. The choices made, we are learning, even have the power to effect generations. While the generational aspect may not be exactly the same as in Wuthering Heights, the cycle of choices is indeed a common parallel and thesis in Rian Johnson’s new film Looper, one of the smartest, hippest, most emotionally wrenching neo-noirs to come along since… well, Johnson’s debut feature, Brick. Though, let us not ghettoize the film to simply neo-noir or even sci-fi; Rian Johnson’s third film is just good period.
About thirty-two years in the future, time travel has not been invented, as the gruff voice of Joe (Joseph=Gordon Levitt) will tell you. The only people who do use it are the ones living thirty years from that future, although it is strictly illegal. These people are gangsters and thugs, and when they use it, they use it to get rid of any trace of someone by sending them back in time to a hit man, who immediately shoots them and then collects their payment. These hit men are called “Loopers”, a name that gives way to theoretical concepts of time and space (e.g. the cyclical cycle of life being a loop). When the looper’s contract is up, the gangsters send back the older version of themselves, to be terminated upon arrival. When one person called the “Rain Man” begins cutting contracts short all around the country, Joe must face a difficult decision: killing his future self.
That is the general, trailer and hype version of the story, but the film has less to do with Present Joe (Gordon Levitt) and Future Joe (Bruce Willis) going at it for two hours then one might be led to believe. Instead, the film becomes an interesting exploration on the theme of choices. Both Present Joe and Future Joe must make decisions that will mark and affect their present and future forever. Instead of boiling it down to a reductive, silly Back to the Future thesis of decision making, the decisions in this film have a bigger impact and more relevance on the present. The choices the characters must make are about who they will become, in all seriousness, and what kind of future they will have. Johnson throws in another curveball by making it so the decisions to be made will essentially affect the futuristic society as a whole.
There is an extended conversation scene in a diner between Present Joe and Future Joe that is very reminiscent of an extended conversation scene between a philosopher and a tragic heroine played by Anna Karina in the film Vivre sa Vie. When breaking down and synthesizing theoretical and philosophical concepts, you essentially have three camps of exposition: Vivre sa Vie, which is a lecture in dialogue form; The Matrix, which is a lot of exposition in an effort to synthesize dense concepts in dialogue form; and Inception; which is, if not exactly the most fluid dialogue on earth, at least the most accessible. Looper, strangely enough, becomes a category all its own. Yes, the concepts of making choices and the consequences of those choices on the future and other people are made, but it is written with such breadth and clarity that it hardly seems like synthesis at all. Johnson is a whiz at dialogue, whether he’s recreating and copying a certain hardboiled style seen both in Brick as well as in Looper, or telling a heist story much like The Sting or Paper Moon in The Brothers Bloom. Johnson is able to get his ideas, styles, and themes across to the audience pretty effortlessly. The conversation, therefore, should be fairly accessible to anyone who maybe didn’t love or understand Inception.
Johnson’s style is not only written all over the dialogue, but in the style of the film itself. Its locales are a combination of rural Kansas and a futuristic Metropolis. Its technology transitions smoothly between the present (as in 2012) and the future (as in 2044).Apparently, Johnson’s sophomore effort The Brothers Bloom is described as a “post-modern heist movie”, and if that it is so, it is because of its quirky way of appropriating very classic settings and elements and appropriating them within a very modern context. It’s a layering of the old and the new. Looper does the same thing, making the future not so far away, combing the essences of contemporary technologies and the newness of futuristic tech. It makes it so that it does not feel like a sci-fi film as much as, say, Blade Runner. Its feet are rooted to the present in many ways, and this smooth transition and appropriation of style is fascinating.
Thrilling again stylistically, Johnson returns to neo-noir, with first person narration and all! Plenty of fascinating archetypes to go around, but what is different here is the optimistic quality of the film. Neo-noir is typically filled with a nihilistic state of mind, but, good or bad, the film seems to be filled with hope.
The performances are all around superb, with Gordon-Levitt, underneath layers of makeup to make him look more like Willis, getting that gritty, existential quality of the perfect noir anti-hero. Willis, of course, kicks ass, but with both of them playing the “same role”, there an interesting dynamism about the character that has one actor complement the other in terms of manifestations of vulnerability and masculinity. Gordon-Levitt is the boy; Willis is the man. The relationship dynamic of each trying to prove to the other that they’re better is a highlight of the film. Emily Blunt, meanwhile, slips into (and infrequently out of) a Southern drawl for a hardworking belle whose son holds the key to the Joes’ existences. (A note: the kid who plays Sara’s son gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from someone under the age of 21. It does not seem like a 7 year old trying to act alongside heavyweights, it feels like a 7 year old giving the heavyweights a run for their money. He is literally better than Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon and on par with Anna Paquin in The Piano.)
The film does have a sizable flaw: its pace. Its first hour, no matter how many gunshots are fired, is slow and drags on for a bit. The meat of the story and emotion is in the latter half, and while it’s fine getting there, the tone and pace fly around a bit, almost unsure of itself. It isn’t that the film keeps talking about things, but it just seems to take a long time to where it wanted to really begin. It feels as if the key moments in the first half are Present Joe explaining himself, Present Joe meeting Future Joe, and Present Joe meeting Emily Blunt’s Sarah. The moments in between those seem, while not totally unnecessary, not as well written. There’s more passion and pathos in scenes with Joe, which is the danger of balancing large concepts and several characters and using it as a framework around a few key characters. Luckily, it is not enough to mar the experience of seeing the film.
Rian Johnson has, with only three films under his belt, become one of the preeminent visionaries of independent filmmaking. Brick is his masterpiece, but Looper is an excellent film that drags the viewer in to examine choices, both theirs and the characters’. Its unique, post-modern style has now become a trademark for Johnson’s work, while its accessibility with regard to heady concepts and ability to retain all of the film’s intelligence will please audiences. Both Gordon-Levitt and Willis are awesome powerhouses, and while the pace can occasionally lag, the film is quite the thrilling experience. In terms of cycles, I can’t wait to experience all over again.