'Looper': Timeless Classic
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Good news: Not only is the smart, sexy, sophisticated but still slam-bang sci-fi action-thriller not dead, it's just gotten itself a potent shot in the arm by way of writer-director Rian Johnson. The creator of the formally ambitious indie noir variant "Brick" and the ornate New Wave con-artist sort-of farce "The Brothers Bloom" demonstrated imagination and chops galore with those pictures, but his new picture, "Looper," still feels kind of like an out-of-nowhere head-butt.
Its opening images feature Joseph Gordon-Levitt holding a blunderbuss, consulting an old-fashioned pocket watch and keeping his eye on a tarp that he's laid out on the edge of a cornfield. In what could be called the literal blink of an eye, the figure of a man, hooded and with his hands tied behind his back, appears on the tarp. No sooner does that happen than the character played by Gordon-Levitt pulls the trigger on his firearm and kills the man. This opening is emblematic of what the movie is going to continue doing, relentlessly, for the next hour and forty minutes or so.
First off, there's the sheer "What the eff" factor of what's happening before your eyes, superbly conjured/manipulated by Johnson's shooting and editing, the style of which is very fleet in an up-to-the-minute way without being annoying about it. Then there's the moral consideration: There's something deeply disturbing about the sight of a completely helpless human buying the farm like that. Maybe he did something really bad. We don't find out what the crime of this suddenly appearing figure is. We do find out his merciless killer is, in a sense, our hero.
Gordon-Levitt's Joseph is the narrator as well, and our docent through an ugly not-too-distant future Middle America in which he's got a cherry job in a deeply dysfunctional near-feudal economy. He is a "looper," a time-travel assassin. As he explains, sometime in the future beyond this one, time travel has been invented -- and immediately outlawed. And, you know, if you outlaw time travel, only outlaws will have time travel. Loopers kill guys who are sent back from the future. Their payment is strapped to the backs of the guys they kill. It's a pretty great gangster existence for the young killers: They do nifty new designer drugs, consort with way-gorgeous hookers and hang out at an elaborate nightclub called La Belle Noiseusse, ar ar ar, Mr. Johnson. There's only one catch: They have to kill themselves.
Loopers are so called because they're obliged to close their own loops: to kill their future selves as they're zapped back. They aren't supposed to know this is happening until the deed is done. The disastrous consequences of meeting and "saving" your future self are demonstrated when a weak-minded colleague of Joseph's (Paul Dano) does exactly this. The scene in which his future fugitive self starts seeing his fingers disappear is one of the more convincingly sadistic uses of a particular time-travel trope I've ever experienced in the genre. And that's hardly the end of Johnson's bag of tricks. After Joseph resolves to not let what happened to his buddy go down with him, he is of course confronted with his own future self, who is cagier, meaner, has seemingly figured out all the tricks, and has a sense of urgent mission that the happy-go-lucky Joseph has never even experienced a tickle of. Young Joseph then gets his sense of mission: to not let this old guy screw up what he still considers a sweet deal. Given that the older Joseph is played by a very irritated-looking Bruce Willis, this would appear to be a potentially vexed task.
Willis, as his fans and sci-fi aficionados are no doubt aware, also appeared in one of the last century's better time-travel-themed movies, visionary director Terry Gilliam's "12 Monkeys," which was in turn a sort of remake of the undeniable classic 1960 time-travel short "La Jetée." "Looper" is informed by, and pays a kind of respectful homage to, those pictures, and it's also got some precedent in the no-budget sci-fi indie "Primer." But what makes this picture an instant classic is the near-punk attitude Johnson exercises on the material. Having constructed a relatively airtight scenario concerning all of the relevant permutation of time-travel paradoxes and such, he exploits his story elements in ways that keep the viewer asking, "Wow, are we really going there?"
For instance, Willis' future Joseph's solution to his preventing-the-death-of-the-future-woman-who-saves-his-life problem is to kill the figure responsible for her death in his past. Except that in this past, his wife's future killer is just a kid. And Willis is so hell-bent on accomplishing this that he just doesn't care. So, in its way, the story goes there. And, having gone there, aside from the actual suspense of the story line, the viewer's likely to be on tenterhooks about surviving the moral conundrums that pop up, and pop up they continue to do, most harrowingly in the form of futuristic frontier woman Emily Blunt, whom young Joseph takes a shine to, and her rather special young son.
To go into more detail risks giving too much away, and this is a movie that has the most impact seen cold. Which I heartily recommend you do. We can discuss it more in the, um, future.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film
critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various
publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He
lives in Brooklyn.