Writer/director Rian Johnson’s 2005 film “Brick” was a unique, inventive take on both hardboiled detective stories and teen drama. With his latest film, “Looper”, he takes on time travel, balancing numerous timelines, entwining stories from different eras, and even spinning a single character into multiple different personalities. This all sounds confusing, like it could easily become a jumbled mess of big ideas that wind up muddy and unclear. Lucky for you Johnson has an excellent sense for storytelling, and weaves all of the strands together into a clear narrative.
That’s not to say that “Looper” is simple. Far from it, this is a twisting, many-layered story, full of fast-paced action, nuanced performances all around, and subtle camera tricks that keep the visual side of things interesting. You’re never sure where Johnson is taking you, but it’s one hell of a ride, one that earns each revelation. All of this, and much more, comes together into a movie that’s close, so, so close, to greatness, but never makes it the entire way.
In Kansas in the year 2044, time travel does not yet exist. 30 years in the future, however, it will have been invented, and subsequently outlawed almost immediately. But a simple legal ban won’t stop the most powerful criminal organizations from putting this technology to good use. You know better than that. When the future mob needs someone gone, they send the target into the past, where specialized assassins, called loopers, wait to blast the mark into oblivion. Back in the future, the criminal types can go about their illicit affairs without worrying that an unwanted corpse will pop up and throw a monkey wrench into their carefully laid plans.
Loopers live like rock stars in a time of strife. Their fast cars, nice clothes, and lavish lifestyles are a stark contrast to the extreme poverty that surrounds them. This underlying thread of class conflict is one of the subtle touches Johnson injects into his film. While the film never deals with this subject in a direct manner, it looms in the background, coloring everything else. The future, as “Looper” envisions it, is a grim, bleak place. Imagine the façade of the modern world, run down after decades of neglect, set against sleek futuristic skyscrapers, and you have a good idea of what you’ll see. Loopers blow through money without a second thought, buying booze, drugs, and expensive prostitutes, who themselves live in a rundown ghetto.
Duality of this sort infuses the entire film. Telekinesis is widespread, but is little more than a parlor trick. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper. He lives the lifestyle, as if there was no tomorrow, but he knows damn well that there is an expiration date. When the bosses in the future decide they no longer require the services of a looper, they “close the loop”, sending the future version back in time for the past version to kill. They buy you off, so you can live like a king, but you know, when the 30-year mark hits, that’s all you get. When Joe’s future self (Bruce Willis) shows up in his crosshairs, things start to go crazy.
The action that follows runs from the present (of the film anyway) into the future, which then comes back, influencing the present, which in turn leads to changes in the future. On and on, in a continuous loop, until all of these stories merge into a single plot. Again, though this all appears convoluted on the surface, Johnson keeps tight control over these strands, letting them run when it benefits the film, reigning them in and bringing them together when necessity dictates.
All of this narrative acumen is augmented with wonderful performances from all of the key players. Watching Willis and Gordon-Levitt (who wears facial prosthetics to look more Willis-y) face off while playing different versions of the same character is great fun. Present Joe is full of stress and anger, trying to get his future back under his control, while Willis’ Future Joe knows what his story can be, and is fighting to keep a grip on his life and his memories.
When Jeff Daniels shows up as Abe—a small, but vitally important role—he manages to steal nearly every scene, which is something of a victory in “Looper”. He’s from the future, sent back to run the loopers, but got bored, and decided he could do his job while running things in the past as well. A world-weary pseudo-father figure to Joe, Abe is funny, but conveys a serious sense of menace. He’ll make you laugh, only to cringe with fear in the same moment.
Abe isn’t a real villain, and in fact, “Looper” doesn’t have a traditional antagonist. The film takes turns identifying with various incarnations of the Joe persona. Each one has a specific goal, an end game to work towards, and sometimes these objectives conflict with one another. Whoever stands across from the current point of view characters stands in as the bad-guy-of-the-moment. You never hate anyone, and you even sympathize with their plights. That may sound like wishy-washy nonsense, but Johnson makes it work. Things are never as simple as good-guy-versus-bad-guy.
The only knock against “Looper”, the only thing that keeps it from being truly great, is that what begins as a quick, steady pace, drops off just as the narrative begins to build towards the climax. You understand what Johnson is doing, he delves into Joe’s past, and attempts to create emotional bonds that will ultimately be necessary for the film to pay off in the end. But it is such a shift, such a drastic change in focus, that it almost feels like a restart where the film becomes something else entirely. This all makes sense, but the turn slows your progression, and extends the film longer than it needs to be.
This downturn is the one real scratch in the paintjob. Otherwise “Looper” starts off taut—with the inherent tension of a ticking stopwatch—and takes you on a winding ride through the past, present, and future. Though the film falls just short of greatness, you have to give it credit for fantastic performances, the stones to grapple with big ideas, and the ability to pull off a slick narrative juggling act.
Rian Johnson (writer/director)
CAST: Joseph Gordon-Levitt…Joe