Written and directed by Rian Johnson. Produced by Ram Bergman, James D. Stern. Music by Nathan Johnson. Photographed by Steve Yedlin. Edited by Bob Ducsay. Production designed by Ed Verreaux. Starring Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels, Garrett Dillahunt.
Rian Johnson’s Looper is smart and sophisticated science fiction that mixes time travel, crime drama, film noir, and then, like the best of sci-fi, adds a little curiosity and philosophy. We can imagine (and have seen) genre films that use time travel as an excuse for gimmicks and nonstop action. But Looper is different. It does have action, and it piles on the paradoxes, but it altogether uses these devices to engage in honest-to-God ideas and questions without short-changing them. It is not only the best sci-fi film of the year, but it’s the best since Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010). Like that film, Looper is simultaneously ingenious and soulful, positing an elaborate sci-fi conceit and embellishing in a way that (a) makes sense and (b) imagines its creeping psychological cost. Oh, and both movies star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but you knew that.
Here’s the premise. The year is 2044. A man stands in a Kansas cornfield, waiting. This man is Joe (Gordon-Levitt), and he is a looper. A looper is an assassin, hired by a far-reaching mafia syndicate that, thirty years in the future, will control the illegal conveyance known as time travel. When the syndicate has someone they want to disappear, they send him back in time, hooded, to meet a man like Joe, who then plugs the target with blunderbusses (modified sawed-off shotguns). A looper gets a nice severance at the end of his contract, which is signaled by the arrival of the looper’s final target: himself. This is a criminal enterprise, after all, so no loose ends are tolerated. Loopers are aware of this wrinkle (it’s known as “closing your loop”), and they accept it. They get thirty years before they have to die, and everyone goes some time, right? Or, as Joe describes (in narration): “This job doesn’t attract the most forward-thinking of individuals.”
And why should it? In the land of the Kansas dystopia, a looper is king. A typical looper lifestyle, as seen through Joe, is one of endless partying, privileged access, drug abuse, and nice apartments while the less fortunate wallow in homeless filth–a recent economic collapse is implied. The loopers are ruled by the affable Abe (Jeff Daniels), who runs a tight ship, never more efficiently than when another looper, Seth (Paul Dano) accidentally loses his loop. A looper who breaks the system is hunted without mercy, with the added wrinkle that even though they are separate men, a young looper’s body can be used as collateral against the old one. In bed with a showgirl (Piper Perabo), Joe laments his role in Seth’s plight, and he is haunted and alone.
Everything changes when Joe’s newest mark turns out to be Joe himself (heretofore known as “Old Joe”, and played by Bruce Willis). That’s not the odd part, but the fact that Old Joe comes back sans hood shakes Joe to his core. Why doesn’t Old Joe have a hood? It’s a long story, but we’ll eventually get the quick version. Suffice to say, the loop is broken, and now Joe—both Joes—are hunted by Abe’s men, the most trigger-happy of which is Kid Blue (Noah Segan), a sarsaparilla-voiced gun enthusiast who is a danger to everyone, including himself.
I will now drift away from specifics. The film is hard to spoil, since the end is the beginning, and yet it isn’t, and of course time travel is ceaselessly tricky (“I don’t want to talk about time travel shit,” says Old Joe, “Or we’re going to be making diagrams out of straws all day”). But there are spoilers, which I will avoid. I won’t explain how Old Joe’s trip to the past changed from a death sentence to a mission, or what any of this has to do with the Kansas farm that Young Joe finds, which is run by Sara (Emily Blunt, tan, lean, mean) and her 10-year-old son Cid (Pierce Gagnon). There’s more stuff that I won’t say, but I can’t figure out any cute methods in which to not say them, so here we are.
Looper, as a premise, lives or dies on the strengths of Johnson’s screenplay, and it’s a good one. Time travel stories are notably besieged by the flaws in their own logic, since no other subgenre is as vulnerable to any attempts at phony causality. But Johnson’s screenplay is tight and engaging, and is not only clever about its subject, but it lets its own characters speak smartly about said subject. My favorite little exchange in the movie comes when both Joes sit for a prolonged discussion in a roadside diner, as young Joe mentions a specific way he can hurt the older man, under the guise of protection. It’s a throwaway line but typical of Johnson’s cleverness and his desire to keep easy solutions away from the characters, and also it illustrates just how well this stuff has been thought through.
That goes double for Johnson’s world building, which is done through little sketches that add up to a big picture. Like other futuristic noirs, Johnson’s camera in Looper pauses only momentarily to note peculiarities: a beaten-up piece of farming tech, a plastic sliver of a cell phone, a designer drug administered through eye drops, or a broken-down bus commandeered by vagrants. Clearly he has spent a lot of time parsing out his futuristic society, but he’d rather not show it, knowing that it’s more persuasive to see glimpses of a different world more than an extended look. This is going to be one of those films, like Blade Runner and Children of Men, where fans keep returning to try to spy things that Johnson (and cinematographer Steve Yedlin) have hidden in the corner of some frames.
As a screenwriter, Johnson likes both puzzles and terse bits of dialogue that reveal character. He’s also gifted at humor that fits his characters and situations. His first act here, working on an expansive canvas, is so good and tight in laying exposition, creating characters, imagining a world and establishing stakes that it could be taught in film schools. Later, he adds to his repertoire some action beats that, surprisingly, accomplish much the same purpose. Even amidst gun battles and shocking brutality (some from unlikely sources), Johnson grounds the events in personalities, even during a climax that many writers, no matter how ambitious, would have approached by going on autopilot. Like a chess master, Johnson’s screenplay makes careful moves, none more so than its final. Nothing is wasted.
Yet none of that would matter if we didn’t care. Sci-fi films sometimes have this problem, spending so much effort on their logistics that they sacrifice the meat and potatoes of good drama: characters and plot. But no, once again, Johnson impresses. His script is not a self-satisfied exercise, but instead a springboard to debate topics of fate, free will, and whether a person is responsible for his own future before it happens. This involves the central character on not just one level, but two. Maybe three or four.
The performances are perfect. Gordon-Levitt effectively solidifies his movement to become a movie star here, even when buried under a batch of makeup that (successfully) makes him look more like Willis in order to bridge the gap between the two men. Levitt has played savvy though guys before, but never with this much conviction. Willis, a frequent staple of sci-fi epics, is a rock: smooth and steady, but willing to dip his toe in real drama, of which he definitely gets his chance, prompting us to consider and reconsider what we think of Old Joe. Blunt is wonderful as the salty Kansas farmer who, like Old Joe, is also trying to outrun her past. Newcomer Pierce Gagnon is also severely impressive, for reasons I cannot fairly articulate at this time.
Rian Johnson is a name that, with the release of Looper, people should start to get to know. He’s made two previous features. The first, Brick (2005), again starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, reimagined a pulp noir within a California high school, with stylized language intact, employing a wickedly imaginative interlocking plot. His second film, The Brothers Bloom (2008), was an inspired story of con men (Mark Ruffalo, Adrien Brody) in a typical con (read: knowingly convoluted) scheme. In all three films, he’s shown a knack for peopling borrowed universes with particular characters and diabolical narratives. He’s a smart man and writes smart movies, but is never interested in outsmarting his audience, if that makes any sense. His twists and revelations are a means, not an end. Like many savvy filmmakers, he knows that a puzzle that doesn’t say anything once it’s filled in is just a meaningless diversion. It has to have purpose.
And so it is with Looper. There may be some that argue with the way the way some of Johnson’s paradoxes resolve, or they may insist that his movie is not intellectually consistent. Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps it isn’t. But it is emotionally consistent, and that’s more crucial, and more rewarding. Johnson’s conceits are subservient to his ideas and characters, and the result, despite any dumb little nitpicks, is a little gem, a smart and sophisticated piece that, like the best science fiction, adds a little curiosity and philosophy. We can imagine…
Uh oh. I think I’ve been here before.