Looper is a film that many, including us, have waited for since its announcement. With a concept that revolves around a man tasked to assassinate his future self, who wouldn’t be exited? Blending elements of film noir and sci-fi, does Looper deliver on it’s brilliant premise?
In Looper writer-director Rian Johnson has created a thrilling science fiction story, laced in noir style. Johnson constructs a meticulous and thought out world that he resist shoving in your face, instead passively introducing it and keeping the character’s and their dilemmas at center stage. There is of course the plot of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Joe trying to right the wrong of failing to assassinate his future self, but there’s more to it than that. Revealing much more would be spoiling a fantastic experience and the film itself does a good job of explaining its mechanics.
Looper has a style that is all its own. The camerawork is fantastic, with action scenes often using stationary cameras with quick pans. This, along with the editing and the film’s knack for an almost deadpan approach to shots of character’s deaths, serves to make it very distinctive.
Not only does Johnson create this world and present it with considerable visual splendor, he also gets fantastic performances out of his, admittedly talented, cast. Jeff Daniels makes for a slimy head of the assassin organization, Paul Dano is as lacking in balls as ever, Noah Segan plays a henchman who desperately wants to prove himself and Emily Blunt is as great as ever and is convincingly Kansan despite her very English origin. She really is one of the foremost actresses working today. Johnson even manages to give us one of the finest child performances in recent years in the form of Pierce Gagnon, whose bipolar nature would be a challenge for even the most seasoned thespian. His character is also the center of the film’s primary moral debate. It’s riveting stuff.
But the real core of the film is Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Wills, both playing the Looper Joe. Gordon-Levitt has the interesting task of playing a character via the medium of playing Bruce Willis and he completely pulls it off. He’s aided by prosthetic make-up but the heavy lifting is all done by Levitt. In fact it never really enters your mind that you’re seeing JGL on-screen. He truly is the character. Effortlessly he utilizes Willis‘ inflection, ticks and mannerisms, without feeling like simple mimicry. Plainly, they feel like two sides of the same coin, though with different outlooks on life.
Willis likewise takes on the demanding role with considerable verve and delivers arguably his finest performance since Pulp Fiction, commanding some of the film’s heaviest emotional moments, ensuring your investment in proceedings.
Perhaps what the film does best is portray characters that are completely morally gray. Everyone is capable of unspeakable violence, murder and making questionable decisions. There’s no black and white here, well in line with the film’s noir trappings. On the topic of violence, Looper is very much an R-rated film, featuring bloody murder and brutality but it’s never presented gratuitously or reveled in. In fact the film’s most gruesome scene actually doesn’t feature any blood or physical violence of any kind, all through clever use of the time travel mechanic. As a whole the film dares to go places traditional blockbuster fare wouldn’t dare tread.
The film’s score, composed by Nathan Johnson, is very prominent in the opening chapter of the film, helping to place you in the right mindset. It then proceeds to fade into the background. It’s excellent throughout but the best parts are front loaded. The sound is very unique and it would’ve been great for it to shine through more. As it stands it serves to underscore the film’s pivotal moments. Perfect accompaniment, some might say.
There is of course an elephant in the room, one who must be addressed. Time travel and the paradoxes that it presents. They are an inevitable passenger in films that deal with the subject matter and it’s very easy for a film to completely fall apart upon scrutiny. Luckily Rian Johnson knows what he’s doing. Looper really only betrays its own, brilliantly crafted, internal time travel logic on one account. It’s vital that it does this so we actually have a movie to watch and it can be argued that in the grand scheme of things that it isn’t really all that important (it’s certainly no “John Conner is the catalyst of his own birth”). The film itself even addresses this with Bruce Wills telling Levitt not to bother him with “this time travel bullshit, it isn’t important”. And really, if Bruce Willis tells you to do something, you do it. Besides, you’ll enjoy the film more.
Apart from this ‘snag’ the film’s script is practically inscrutable, delivering great dialog, including fantastic noir narration by Gordon-Levitt that feels completely at home in the film. None of the characters are really underwritten and Johnson tackles several different themes in his writing. Maternal love, predeterminism vs creating your own fate and other moral and philosophical quandaries. It’s quite thought-provoking, a refreshing thing in today’s often mindless blockbuster landscape. The film’s narrative style is also quite fresh, especially when it showcases Joe’s life as Willis had lived it, the one he’s now interfering with. However it’s not completely faultless. The pacing lets off a little too much during the film’s second act, it’s not enough to cause a real problem but after the snappy opening it might feel a tad too slow for a while, despite having some seriously impactful moments. Thankfully, the film more than makes up for it with its pulse pounding climax and pitch perfect ending.
Final Verdict: Looper is an original, clever and daring work of science fiction cinema, cementing Rian Johnson’s place as one of today’s most exciting filmmakers. A bona-fide modern genre classic and one of the year’s best films. A shining beacon of originality that deserves your attention. As Jeff Daniels’ Abe says to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Joe: “Do something different, something new”. Johnson certainly did.