“In the year 2044, time travel has not yet been invented. But in 30 years, it will have been.”
So begins Looper, a sci-fi noir thriller from writer and director Rian Johnson. Just as Johnson’s Brick (2005) placed the hardboiled detective novel in a high school setting to memorable effect, so Looper mixes familiar genre elements in a way that is refreshingly individual.
By the 2040s, it seems the current recession has coalesced into endless social malaise; like the Detroit of RoboCop, mid-21st century Kansas is a city beset by crime and vandalism. The divide between rich and poor has widened, and for 20-something people like Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), becoming a Looper is a grim yet lucrative means of making a living.
A Mafia employee of the lowest rank, a Looper’s job is essentially waste disposal. The mob of the 2070s catches its victims and sends them, hog-tied and with a bag over their head, back in time to be despatched by a Looper holding a Blunderbuss – essentially a futuristic, bare-bones form of shotgun which is deadly at close range.
If this sounds like an inhuman way to make a living, director Rian Johnson illustrates just how mechanical the process is – killing with a Blunderbuss is presented as little more difficult than stunning cattle in a slaughterhouse. After the deed’s done, the body’s incinerated, Joe’s paid, and that’s the end of it.
Then, one day, a complication arises. Joe’s older self (played by Bruce Willis) suddenly materialises in front of him – hogtied, but unmasked. The younger Joe hesitates, allowing the elder Joe enough time to make his escape. Needless to say, this error doesn’t go down well with the mob, and the younger Joe ends up both in pursuit of his future self and on the run from his former employers, led by bearded crime boss Abe (Jeff Daniels).
This much you’ll probably already know if you’ve watched Looper’s trailer, and there’s plenty that’s left out and simplified in the brief outline above. What’s admirable about Looper is that, although most movies would be content with having this premise serve as the basis for a simple sci-fi chase flick – akin to the Total Recall remake which just appeared in cinemas – Looper keeps building and building, with Johnson constantly striving to pack in more detail, more twists and yet further red herrings.
Shooting largely on location in New Orleans, Johnson creates an unusual future world that’s one part graffiti-splashed urban hell to one part American Gothic, all wheat fields, dusty roads and 19th century clapboard houses. It’s an unusual, engaging aesthetic that mixes the familiar with the unexpected.
Unlike so much mainstream genre fare, Looper’s action, delivered in blazing flashes, is uncompromising and unsentimental. For the most part lacking in obvious CG frippery, it’s bloody, abrupt, and makes a fantastic use of sound. Uncompromising is an apt word for the movie as a whole, in fact. Looper’s about nasty people doing nasty things, and both young and old versions of Joe are, at times, difficult to root for. It’s a testament to the acting abilities of Willis and Gordon-Levitt that they can inject their characters with a vital thread of humanity.
Willis, who’s often at his best in genre films, such as the thematically similar Twelve Monkeys, is again great here, and there’s one electrifying scene in a diner which counts among his best work to date. Similarly, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is thoroughly convincing as a young killer whose experiences have left him tough and flinty-eyed. He masterfully captures little nuances of Bruce Willis’ acting style, while adding more than a dash of youthful arrogance (“Why can’t you do what old people do best,” young Joe asks old Joe, “and die?”).
Lonely homestead owner Sara (Emily Blunt) is Looper’s one ember of morality in its bleak futuristic void, as is a disarmingly smart young boy named Cid (Paul Gagnon). Their performances are excellent, but then, so’s the whole cast, from Paul Dano, who plays Joe’s friend and fellow Looper, to Jeff Daniels, whose mob boss is full of dry wit and creative threats.
It’s Rian Johnson, though, who puts in the best performance, both in his writing and direction. His script walks a difficult tightrope, in that it constantly provides an insight into its characters motivations. We might find their actions horrifying, but we’re always aware of the cold logic behind them.
Inevitably, perhaps, for such an ambitious film, there are a few faults. Its shifts in pace and tone, from light to dark, from fast-paced to measured, are perfectly judged for the most part, but there is one occasion where, for this writer, the otherwise taut sense of tension eased for too long. Some may also be a little bemused by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s facial prosthetics and contact lenses, designed to make him look more like a young Bruce Willis. In most shots, they’re convincing, but in some, they’re a distraction.
It’s arguable that the ideas of the author Philip K Dick are often deployed more effectively in films inspired by his work than in direct adaptations, and Looper’s a perfect example. In A Scanner Darkly, a character is presented with the absurd task of investigating himself on the suspicion of dealing drugs. Looper takes that notion to its deadliest extremes, presenting a character who’s faced with the ordeal of killing his older self in order to survive. As a young Joe says, in a particularly telling line, Looper‘s about “Men working out what they’re willing to do to protect what’s theirs.”
In Looper, Rian Johnson runs riot, and his enthusiasm for storytelling and science fiction is infectious. His film throws numerous bold ideas into its two-hour duration, and although not all of them sit comfortably beside each other, it’s impossible to fault the scale of its ambition, or its power to entertain.
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