Around the Bend: Looper

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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.

Everything or Nothing: Mildred Pierce (2011)

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If there is one thing that annoys me to no end, it is when people automatically, almost seemingly impulsive write off any film or movie that happens to be an adaptation of a book. “The book is always better than the movie.” ”Look at all the stuff the movie left out!” “They didn’t do so and so like the author.” However, I implore them with, “Accept the film as its own entity!” The thing they should realize is, film is a different medium. And with that medium, you have a lot of obstacles: creative input and running time, primarily. What audiences often look for are transliterations of their favorite books, something they will never get unless they want to sit for several hours in a theater. That will also never happen unless you find a production team willing to put that much effort into translating every scene and every piece of dialogue to the screen. Not for a theatrical feature at least. So, here I would like to commend the mini-series format! The format, which is roomier than a feature film but shorter than a series, is almost perfect for those purists unsatisfied with theatrical adaptations. (Also, people with patience.) Perhaps the most literal transliteration I have ever seen (and, granted, I have not seen many) is Todd Hayne’s Mildred Pierce, based on the novel by James M. Cain. This is the most thorough adaptation of a novel I have ever seen, using dialog verbatim from Cain’s novel and including nearly every scene from the novel. Clocking in at five episodes and almost five and a half hours, it is completely worth your time. Did I mention that Kate Winslet is superb in it?

James M. Cain, whose novels inspired the term noir and were themselves adapted as film noirs, was popular for writing respected hard boiled novels. From The Postman Always Rings Twice to Double Indemnity (whose screenplay would be written by fellow hardboiler Raymond Chandler), Cain knew exactly how to portray moral ambiguity and social class hypocrisies. With Mildred Pierce (published after Postman and before Indemnity), it is a bit of a different turn for Cain. No gangsters. No overt double crossing, in the noir sense. And no first person narrative. Nevertheless, Cain’s portrayal of a divorcee during the Depression trying to attain success and keep her prodigal daughter happy was a success, and was adapted into a film in 1945 by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), and featured an Academy Award-winning performance by Joan Crawford as the titular character.

Jump sixty-seven years later, and in the place of Crawford is Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslet, playing the strong, but somewhat damaged Mildred Pierce. In the first episode, in her cozy California home during the Great Depression, she throws her husband out of the house and is thus left alone to care for her two children, the contemptible Veda (Morgan Turner) and the precious Moiré/Ray. Mildred, now on her own, struggles with the dignity of taking a job as a waitress just to keep her girls happy. And, oh, the men. Handsome she is, and it would not be fair to call her promiscuous, but with her newly garnered title of “grass widow”, she can now do as she pleases. She is liberated, and her choices regarding whom she meets, which honestly are not very many, are not met with usually soap opera-esque judgment of neighbors. The story goes on, as Mildred raises her two girls, and in the meantime, she meets Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce), she opens up her own restaurant, extends it as a chain, and concentrates her love on her dear Veda.

Mildred Pierce, as glorious as it can be, is work to watch, if only for its luxurious pacing. Its supine narrative style makes sense, given the subject matter. Really, how exciting can you really make a character study about a woman struggling and (kind of) overcoming the economic perils during the Depression, all the while dealing with her decidedly pretentious daughter? For what it is worth, it is handled with grace and style. Though there are moments torpid in style that may irk you, it allows the viewer to admire and observe the precision that both Haynes and Winslet have used when creating the character of Mildred Pierce. The series is a study of something not to be studied: a woman doing what she needs to do to get by. It may be the most gracious way of Haynes saying that women can be the best fighters, and will do anything for their children, and thus it is unnecessary and ultimately fruitless to overanalyze their motivations. (That, however, does not completely stop Haynes entirely. On the Blu-ray box set’s special features, each episode has a 4 minute heavy analysis of the episode and the characters.)

Even with the most prudish of viewer, it is hard to be disappointed by HBO’s attention to detail. Even with the distasteful Rome, one cannot deny how gorgeous, detailed, and designed the series was. (It was also incredibly expensive.) For Mildred Pierce, we are transported to late 1930’s – early 1940’s California. Not the patent California of most period pieces, so bright and so obviously manufactured, but a pleasantly natural look, as if the audience were really there. The costume design is gorgeous, the set design evokes the time period perfectly, and the look of the series is stunning. The cinematography has a sunny yellow about it that is reminiscent of the area. The picture is not drenched in browns and yellows, but it fits the time period and the setting of the series, and, like the general setting of the series, evokes a perfect feeling for the series. The cinematography, though, is the most marvelous thing about it. There is nary a scene that does not look good or is not expertly constructed, by both director Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman (who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Haynes’ Sirkian Far From Heaven). If it is drenched, it is drenched in the period, feeling completely naturalistic with the rest of the mise-en-scene.

Kate Winslet is perfection in the role. Without her, Mildred Pierce simply would not be as good as it is. Appearing in every single scene of the series, she plays the character with all of her facets, while still allowing Mildred to be enigmatic. Appearing in every scene in something is a lot of work, and it may call into question as to whether the story is told subjectively from Mildred’s point of view. On the contrary, much of the story is told omnisciently, with the camera looking at her often from others’ perspective. It may seem that the series is just as much about the perception of Mildred from the other people in her life as it is about Mildred herself. Winslet takes on the role, exposing the pathos and sensitivity of Mildred, as well as the character’s strength and survival mentality. Though, the performance does not look effortless. It really should not look that way. It should look like a woman doing what she can to provide for her family, as well as providing for herself. That being said, Winslet is, at times, beautifully restrained in her technique, never falling prey to overacting. She is the perfect Mildred Pierce, and embodies everything the character stands for.

Morgan Turner and Evan Rachel Wood both play Veda, the former playing Veda as a child and the latter playing Veda as an “adult”. Veda is, in a word, a complete bitch. Every line is intentionally play acted with a stagey, Lawrence Olivier kind of tone, as if the child had memorized it from a script. Every apology, every word of admiration, and even every argument has such pretension, it can drive one insane. One gets the impression that young Veda is preparing for an audition worthy of Joan Crawford or Ann Blyth. Although you want to slap her every time you see her on screen, it is a great performance nonetheless. Both actresses are able to hone their bitchiness perfectly for the role.

The supporting cast is just as excellent, with Guy Pearce as Mildred’s main beau, Melissa Leo as Mildred’s best friend, and Mare Winningham as Mildred’s boss as her diner job. The acting is the highlight of the entire series, with each role carefully constructed to fit the time and era without feeling like something stagey or overacted. The performances are what make the series so enthralling, every minute of the way.

The relationship dynamic between Mildred and Veda is critical to the entire series. It is even more important than the dynamic between Mildred and her men. Veda is the ungrateful, prodigal daughter, almost never understanding the struggles her mother goes through to get what she wants. Director Haynes notes that the relationship is comparable to that of unrequited love. Mildred wants to do anything and everything for her daughter and will be loyal to her regardless of the terrible abuse from her daughter. The stupid, dogged loyalty is something that many people experience, both through the mediums of parenting as well as romantic relationships. She is willing to sacrifice everything, and yet get nothing in return.

Mildred Pierce is the closest thing anyone will ever get to a transliteration of any novel. However, as surprising and refreshing as that is, the lead performances are what make the series so incredible. Kate Winslet is at her best playing Mildred, showing her off as both vulnerable and strong. Morgan Turner and Evan Rachel Wood portray Veda as the archetypal bitch, and so very well. Their clashing and individual lives intertwining like barbed wire makes the final episodes soapy and delicious. Though the pacing is slow at times, it is arguably one of the best book to screen adaptations ever. Astounding in every sense of the word, Mildred Pierce delivers.

Grade: A