Johnson’s time travel film has a lot on its mind
Rian Johnson was already on his way to becoming one of cinema's most promising young writer/directors before "Looper" hit screens. But now that "Looper" has established itself as, in my opinion, one of the year's best films, Johnson is firmly in the realm of potentially becoming a very important creative voice in film.
Johnson made his feature film debut in 2005 with "Brick," an indie film that blended genres in a way that should never have worked, much less as brilliantly as it did. His 2008 followup, "The Brothers Bloom," was an excellent sophomore effort, though it lacked the verve of "Brick." Now Johnson gives us "Looper," easily his most accomplished film to date. It says something about a writer/director when your "weakest" film is something like "The Brothers Bloom."
But with "Looper," it proves that Johnson is an artist with a remarkably firm grip on his craft, able to shape a fully-realized world and successfully marry it to a high-concept narrative. Time travel movies are notoriously difficult to pull off, but Johnson gives us one that could well end up being one of the all-time greats.
In the year 2044, time travel has not yet been invented. However, in 30 years, it will be and is immediately outlawed. It becomes a tool used exclusively by the mob to dispose of bodies that, due to technology, are impossible to get rid of in 2074. So if the mob wants to off someone, they send them back in time 30 years where a Looper is waiting, blunderbuss in hand, to immediately kill and dispose of them. The targets always show up gagged, their heads shrouded, a payment of four silver bars strapped to their back. When it's gold on their back, that's when a Looper knows he has killed his future self. They have "closed the loop" and can essentially retire, living the good life until they are eventually sent back in time and killed.
Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper based out of Kansas City. His targets always appear just outside a cornfield, conveniently located near an old factory with a massive incinerator. He lives fast and hard, partying most nights and zipping around in his vintage Mazda Miata. He hoards half of each silver payment he receives, aiming to live an even cushier life once his loop is closed.
But when Joe's future self (Bruce Willis) appears untied and unshrouded, Young Joe hesitates to pull the trigger, allowing Old Joe to escape and ... well to reveal that would be to reveal too much. Suffice to say, Old Joe is determined to change the past in the hope of altering the future.
Given a setup like that, one might assume that "Looper" is a chase movie, wherein Young Joe sprints around this dystopian future attempting to track down his aged self before his employers kill both versions of him. As much (if not more) time is spent on a remote farm as is spent in more "futuristic" environments, because "Looper" is a film more interested in examining the root cause of violence and the cyclical nature of it than it is in throwing time-travel shenanigans at the audience.
Johnson wants us to walk away from this thinking not about the paradoxes inherent in a time travel story, but in the ideas and themes beneath it. Time travel isn't the point of the movie, it's a mechanism Johnson uses to address something bigger.
Yes, there are nits to pick about the logic of the time travelling or the sensibility of how/why Loopers perform their duty. There is certainly no shortage of "movie logic" at play in some of these situations. But, in a big picture sense, it doesn't matter. The rest of the movie is too good for it to matter.
If you had the chance to change the past or "fix" the future, what would your motivation be? What lengths would you go to if you saw only one way to set things on a different, better path? This is what Johnson is most interested in exploring with "Looper."
That he does so via a character that is largely unlikable is a testament to not only his capabilities as a storyteller, but also to the capabilities of Levitt and Willis. Neither "version" of Joe is particularly honorable. We may sympathize (though only in parts) with Old Joe, Young Joe is hardly worth rooting for or even largely identifying with.
And yet they are compelling. Levitt and Willis make them so, essentially playing two halves of one man, each with defining characteristics and yet still finding a middle ground. The years change Joe, but he remains intrinsically himself. Willis and Levitt manage to create symmetry with their performances, no easy task, to be sure.
Much praise is due Levitt, donning subtle prosthetics to his face to make him appear more like a youthful version of Willis. With a lesser actor, undergoing such a process would likely have been distracting, but Levitt makes it seamless, adopting not only Willis' appearance, but also his vocal inflections, mannerisms and demeanor. It's subtle, but a transformation none the less.
And it is within the balance of all these elements that we see the excellence of Johnson's craftsmanship. The full-realized world (bearing just enough socio-political commentary as to be relevant but never overbearing in its observations), the genre-based story more eager to balance ideas than set pieces and his guidance of performances that could have been distracting rather than engaging.
I often hesitate to declare movies to be worth placing next to confirmed classics of the genre, but I have a distinct feeling that "Looper" is a film that will age exceptionally well and that we will one day speak of it in the same breath as the true greats such as "Back to the Future." At the very least, it's as good (and, really, better in some ways) than Willis' other time travel film, "12 Monkeys," which is no small amount of praise, to be sure.