It’s indisputable. We need more films like Rian Johnson’s Looper at the cinema. It was independently financed, it offers a whip-smart, original script and powerful performances, it’s shot with the sort of measured beauty we rarely see in big action movies. But if I were only allowed one word to describe Looper, I’d have to go with fun – and fun’s my favorite word. That a film this fun is also fresh, elegant, smart, even poetic at times is the reason Looper has quickly become one of my favorite films of the year.
The year’s 2044 and time travel hasn’t been invented yet. In 30 years, when mobsters want to rid themselves of a body (an increasingly challenging task due to the advent of nanotechnology), they send the bodies back in time to be killed and then disposed of by specialized assassins called Loopers. Time travel is also highly illegal, so after their contract is up, Loopers are sent back to be killed by their younger counterparts. The younger selves score a big payday and then have thirty years to live it up. When Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) comes face to face with the future version of himself (Bruce Willis), he does his best to do the job. But Old Joe escapes and the two men, present and future, must race against one another to achieve entirely opposed goals.
Looper is a fully engrossing, thoughtful film about time travel. And here’s the thing about time travel – it’s damn near as hard to write as it is to perform. I suppose you could destroy Looper if you wanted to meticulously examine every paradox and logical consequence within the film, but that’s only because writer/director Johnson doesn’t dwell on spelling out the answer to every single question the audience might have. I could fanwank every nitpick you offer about the logic of Looper, but I won’t. I think that destroys the elegance of the film as wholly as nitpicking does. I think these logic quandaries do have easy answers intended by Johnson, and I could make solid guesses at more than a few of them. But I’m glad the screenplay isn’t bogged down with incessant exposition – a few brief sentences are enough to convince me to buy completely into this world. Further examination after the film is fun, and I love that Looper demands it. But don’t assume that because Johnson doesn’t spell out every narrative justification, it means there is no justification. Rian Johnson trusts that we’re an intelligent audience; we should trust him in kind.
And I do. I think Brick and The Brothers Bloom are two incredible films, and Looper does them both marvelous credit. Something all three movies have in common – other than more than a few castmembers and Johnson’s sure hand at screenwriting and direction – is that they’re all cool. These are films about hustlers, smooth and hip with crackling dialogue and starkly beautiful set design. But what Looper boasts more than either of its predecessors is a surprising amount of heart. And that heart comes in the form of an astonishing performance from Emily Blunt.
I doubt Blunt will get a lot of play around this film, going up against such consummate cool guys as Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but her performance is what made Looper truly stick for me. She plays Sara, a single mother living in the cane fields with her five-year-old son Cid. Sara is fiercely independent, fiercely protective of Cid. She is tough and unyielding but capable of a tremendous amount of love. Blunt is remarkable in the most difficult role of the film, delivering steel and grace in equal measure.
Of course all of the actors are wonderful. Joseph Gordon-Levitt renders his makeup unnecessary with a transformed performance, embodying some of Willis’ most familiar mannerisms while making Joe entirely his own. He’s slick and rough and brash. He’s vulnerable and badass. He’s hot.
Willis is hard and angry, recklessly in love. Shrewd and weary, relentless. Noah Segan’s character Kid Blue was written for him by Johnson, an incompetent criminal desperate for respect, a bad guy for whom we can’t help but feel sympathy. Jeff Daniels is pretty nifty as future crime boss Abe, making each of his few short lines sing. Paul Dano and Piper Perabo both turn in small but memorable roles, and I may have been most impressed with the young Pierce Gagnon as Cid, a kid who manages to pull off solemn and wise beyond his years without ever delving into the dreaded precocious territory.
Looper almost offers two different films, disparate in tone but thematically tied. First we have the action that takes place in the city, and then the narrative journeys to the desolate cane fields where Joe runs into Sara and Cid. The city segment is fast and hot and loose, the rural scenes are melodic and serene (except when all of a sudden they’re not – and then they’re terrifying). But both acts of the film foster the same sensibility: that of consequence. Our actions have magnitudes far beyond our own lives, and we can choose to make this world a little more rotten, or a little more beautiful.
Another theme of Looper that I loved is this idea that our younger and older selves have such wildly opposed goals, objectives that are often mutually exclusive. We’ve all looked back at our younger selves and cringed, regretting that one decision, that stupid hat, that embarrassing faux pas. With Joe and Old Joe, we get to see that happen in the moment, with both versions of the same man glaring at one another from across a diner booth. Bruce Willis’ Joe is mortified by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Joe. Of course Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Joe doesn’t give a shit. Old Joe is just that – an old man. His life has nothing to do with Joe’s life. Even though in at least one timeline, they are the same life.
With a heady script, stunning performances and fist-pumping action, Looper is the most enjoyable combination of immensely watchable yet poignant, even cerebral. It’s got a beautiful score (by Johnson’s cousin Nathan Johnson) and a groovy soundtrack, breathtaking set design and cinematography, a story and characters that matter. Looper is rich with themes of regret, consequences, sacrifice, redemption. And love – in many ways, Looper is a story about what we will do for love, and what love can do for us.
And yeah. It's fun too.