Movie Review: Looper (2012)
Director: Rian Johnson
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Jeff Daniels, Emily Blunt, Pierce Gagnon, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt
When I sat down to watch Looper, I knew the basic idea behind the film, but nothing more than that. There's a deeper, and much darker, plot to the film the trailers don't even hint at, and to reveal that plot in a review (which many critics, Roger Ebert included, have unwisely already done) would be to ruin some of the more surprising elements of the film. It would be unfair to those who plan to see this movie, and if there is any movie you should see this year, Looper is that film.
The movie takes place in Kansas in the year 2044. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Joe, a “looper,” or a hitman for the mob who disposes of people from 30 years in the future. Whenever the mob from that time wants to make someone disappear, they send their victims back in time in the middle of a deserted cornfield, where the looper kills them with their trusty Blunderbluss (which is basically a futuristic version of a shotgun) and disposes of their bodies in a furnace. When the crime boss wants to terminate a looper's contract, they are sent an older version of themselves to be killed by them, a process known as “closing the loop.”
Joe is eventually assigned to kill his older self (played by Bruce Willis), but unlike his other victims, who were bound and gagged with a white hood over their heads, future Joe arrives unbound and with no hood. When Young Joe hesitates to kill him, giving Old Joe the chance to escape, he and his older self are hunted by Young Joe's boss Abe (Jeff Daniels). Joe thinks he can make things right if he finds his older self and takes him out, but things take a turn for the worse when he meets an independent woman named Sarah (Emily Blunt), who lives on a Kansas farm with her creepy young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon).
There is a reason why Old Joe was sent back in the condition he was in. It involves the plot I mentioned before, and I wouldn't dream of revealing what it is. It involves Old Joe doing something utterly despicable, and credit must be given Bruce Willis for bringing so much vulnerability and complexity to his character as he goes about his violent mission. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Old Joe might have turned into an action movie villain, but that never happens here. Every dead body Old Joe leaves behind takes its toll on the man, and how could it not? Writer-director Rian Johnson keeps character development the primary focus, ensuring that portion of the movie never veers into exploitation, which it could have easily done.
He also shows an unusual amount of restraint when handling the violence, and there are many scenes that are all the more effective because of it. Take the scene where a fellow looper named Seth (Paul Dano) allows his future self (Frank Brennan) to escape. Young Seth is eventually captured by his old colleagues, and instead of showing us what happens to the younger man, we get a hint of what happens to him by seeing how the Old Seth is affected by it. It's a macabre and disturbing sequence, and made all the more effective because of how much blood isn't spilled.
Which isn't to say the movie is in any way tame. Looper has more than its share of bloody violence, but it has so much more on its mind than that. The action scenes in Looper are exciting and well-staged, sometimes even haunting (this is especially true of a particular scene involving a fellow looper played by Garret Dillahunt). But what's most thrilling about the film are its ideas, and the way the movie plays with them.
The film's main idea poses a lot of interesting questions. For example, when someone closes the loop on themselves, what happens to the life the older self lived? Does it no longer exist? Is the younger self still predestined to follow exactly in his older self's footsteps? Is there no altering it, no matter what choice they make? The questions of predestination are also left open for another character in the film. This character's future is basically what motivates the film's climax. I'm not entirely sure how what happens in the end alters the future we already know for him. Does it actually alter anything at all? Was Joe's choice in the end big enough to make that much of a difference for this character?
I thought about these questions after seeing Looper, and was intrigued by some of the possible answers I came up with. Like Prometheus from earlier this year, Looper is about asking questions it trusts its audience to answer for themselves. And like that film, it's carried by some truly terrific performances. Levitt has become one of my favorite actors over the years. I have yet to see so much as a mediocre performance from him, and here, he creates a character of fascinating complexity. The same thing can be said of Bruce Willis. In one of the best scenes in the film, he meets up with Young Joe at a deserted diner, and scolds his younger self for being too selfish, not realizing his very mission is itself a thoughtless and selfish quest.
Jeff Daniels seems to be having a blast playing the slimy Abe, but special mention must be made of Emily Blunt. In movies like this, the female character fades into the background, occasionally looking on in concern, but Rian Johnson is not a lazy writer. He writes Sarah as a three-dimensional and fully realized character, giving Blunt the chance to really work with her. Her performance is nothing short of spellbinding. She captures her character's fierce independence beautifully, and she also has a monologue late in the film that is so sincerely acted by her, it's downright impossible not to be affected by the words coming out of her mouth. It's a wonderful performance in a film that is rife with them.
Visually speaking, the movie is spectacular. The futuristic cityscapes are simultaneously eye-catching and somewhat familiar. The vehicles of the future are no different from the ones we have today. The only difference is that some of them seem equipped with a myriad of solar panels. There are towering, futuristic buildings, as well as dark alleys you would find in an old 1940s noir. All of it is gorgeously photographed by Steve Yedlin, especially during the moments where Joe is in the cornfield, and we can see a silhouette of the city in the background.
In a year that has seen the likes of Battleship and Total Recall, Looper feels like a breath of fresh air. It's everything a sci-fi action film should be: Exciting, visually stunning, and motivated by ideas that leave you thinking about them long after the end credits roll. It's a terrific entertainment, but it's also more rewarding the less you know going in. So if anyone tries to tell you the nature of Old Joe's mission, just stick your fingers in your ears and sing “LA LA LA!!!!!!!!” as loud as you can. Trust me, it's better that way.
Final Grade: **** (out of ****)