Rian Johnson’s follow up to his happy-go-lucky crime caper The Brothers Bloom is a time-travel thriller with depth. Rather than a simple hitman on the run action film featuring a mullet doing splits, it’s actually a thoughtful exploration of causality, parenthood and how no matter how far the consequences of our actions ripple out to touch lives, we still have free will as a deciding factor.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s voice-over explains that time travel is a luxury afforded by large criminal gangs in the future to dispose of bodies by sending them to the past. There’s a throwaway, yet crucial, line about why criminals in the future can’t just hide bodies in their own era. There are quite a few throwaway lines like this in the film, that might be unsatisfying for some viewers, but are still a benefit to the story keeping it streamlined and focused.
Or as the older version of Gordon-Levitt’s character, Joe, played by Bruce Willis says, “I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.”
Can’t argue with Bruce Willis.
Johnson establishes a world in decay, an urban wasteland with cleanly defined lines between rich and poor, populated by narcissistic killers called loopers who are well aware of their impending demise, and so choose to live in the moment.
Dropping liquid drugs into their eyeballs, cavorting with strippers, driving sports cars around vagrants, shooting people in the face. Loopers have a simple task of dispatching tied and gagged victims who appear from the future at a set time in a set location. The blunderbuss-wielding hitmen sign a contract that dictates that one day they will have to kill themselves in a similar fashion to tie up loose ends, and until that retirement day arrives, they can live the rest of their limited lives however they please, knowing one day their younger self is going to execute them in ignominious manner.
But you can’t argue with Bruce Willis. Naturally once he shows up in front of younger Joe, he’s not going to take death lying down. As he escapes the jaws of death and goes on the run, younger Joe following in his wake, the lives of people in the future depend on actions carried out in the present, but for a time-traveller is the future pre-ordained or can we have a say in merciless causality?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s prosthetic make-up to make him resemble Willis is a boon, but his performance does the majority of work in making you swallow the conceit. He has the trademark Willis rueful smirk down to a tee.
Willis himself is the culmination of younger Joe’s shallow lifestyle, with the exception of having found a woman who has soothed the raging tempest of his character. The idea of losing her is what drives his actions throughout the film, completely at odds with younger Joe’s flippant attitude. There is a great contrast between two aspects of the same identity, and whereas you begin the film sympathising with one character over another, you might find yourself with a completely different mindset an hour later. Our identities are always in a state of constant flux, dictated by ever-changing circumstances.
After the introduction to the world and concepts at play, the story shifts gears and the dogs are set on catching elder Joe before his time-travelling hijinks disrupt the continuum of the universe, but just as you become settled to the idea of an action chase template, Johnson shifts gears again sending younger Joe into contact with a mother and child in rural Kansas. This is what elevates the story and provides the juicy subtext; the impact of a mother figure on the fates of more than one character in the story.
This is where we meet the ever-lovely Emily Blunt showcasing her talents outside of the usual romcoms, and the show-stealing seven year old Pierce Gagnon. As younger Joe’s battle of wits with his older self drive them further apart, he finds himself drawn to the family of two and realises all their fates are intertwined.
Looper is a provocative and compelling look at how our environments shape our identities, though I have my issues with the type of time-travel utilised in this story, aided as it is by Shane Carruth as consultant. I see two types that you can use. Either, you can go back in time and change the future. Or, no matter what you do whatever happened happened. So we’re talking Back to the Future versus Twelve Monkeys.
Now, I do love the idea of BttF style time travel, but just not the execution of it. In visual terms, it’s great. However my rational mind thinks that time-travel would not be like that, if it’s even possible at all. Seeing the laws of physics inexplicably distort in weird ways is somewhat hard to take seriously, such as Marty McFly’s family disappearing from a polaroid, or in Looper’s case an arm showing a message from the past via slowly appearing old wounds.
Though I have my reservations about the physics of time travel involved in Looper, it does lend itself to fascinating, and quite gruesome set ups and pay-offs. Most notably in the mob’s attempt at capturing a runaway older assassin from the future by torturing his younger present self, culminating in a deformed and mutilated man hobbling along a street begging for mercy. The non-showy way that people appear and disappear is also great. There’s no crazy light-show or streaks of lightning, they’re just here one minute and gone the next. The mind wonders at the horrifying potential of such physics, and Johnson is gifted enough to portray it in such visceral manner.
Looper runs the gamut of emotions and moods. From introspective moments in a Kansas cornfield, to Willis going on a rampage which reaches Verhoeven levels of violence (when was the last time you saw a human body used as a bullet-sponge? Total Recall?)
The cinematography and gritty soundtrack are attention-grabbing, from subtle far-off horizons hinting at indistinct dystopia, to the almost jazzy percussive score by Nathan Johnson.
Films like this give me hope for modern day Hollywood, young talent making expressive films with the help of seasoned veterans. No need to go back in time to experience quality film-making.
Yeah, DVD, I wasn’t sent the bluray unfortunately!
Commentary by Rian, Joseph and Emily
2 featurettes, which consist of a brief montage of interviews, and short video-blog entries by the composer
An animated trailer
4 deleted scenes, all of which were cut with good reason (hey, Bruce does explain time travel with straws!)
The bluray version has more featurettes and deleted scenes.
Also posted at film-news.co.uk
Good review. The plot makes perfect sense even if it may seem a bit confusing at first, and the suspense draws you in but something just did not mix so well in the end. I didn’t really care all that much for the characters and that’s sort of why the pay-off didn’t do much for me.
Thanks! I can understand your viewpoint, the film is populated by unlikeable characters, but their conflicts are compelling stuff. Plus that kid is amazing.