Mark Reviews Movies



3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Rian Johnson

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Pierce Gagnon, Noah Segan, Jeff Daniels, Piper Perabo, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug content)

Running Time: 1:58

Release Date: 9/28/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 27, 2012

In lesser hands (and even sometimes in capable hands), stories about time travel can become lost in the morass of rules and paradoxes until the story has no logical foothold and whatever point there is to the story outside of its central science-fiction trapping no longer means anything. Writer/director Rian Johnson twice dismisses any semblance of long-winded explanations before they can even begin in Looper. The rules of his time-travel story are simple. Time travel is possible.  This is the way people use it. These, most importantly, are the repercussions.

To suggest that Looper is solely a story about time travel, though, is to do the film a great disservice. Johnson has taken familiar elements—time travel, psychic abilities, a shady criminal organization, a futuristic cityscape—and finds exciting and innovative ways to challenge our expectations of them.

Time travel, again, is nothing more than a MacGuffin, and the suggestion of alternate timelines that is spread throughout the story puts us in the mindset of the endless possibilities for how this story could unfold. A strain of genetic mutations in human beings gives a segment of the population psychic powers, and the way Johnson plays it as a joke in the introduction to this world leaves us in the dark as to how he will ultimately use that seemingly throwaway detail (and gobsmacked when he does).

The mob is powerless, seeing as their existence serves some mysterious crime lord in the future, yet holds terrifying control over those who choose to join its ranks, and the noise and chaos they engender within a stark Kansas City means very little to the film's later events, which are set in the calmer, rural areas outside the city limits. When things quite literally explode out there, it's an even greater shock.

The result is a film that is simultaneously a visceral and an intellectual experience—one that knows how to play our emotions and desire for thrills while still demanding that we heed the ideas behind the machinations of the plot. This is a film in which the consequences of each and every act hold just as much—if not more—weight than the actions themselves.

In the year 2042 (henceforth "the present"), time travel does not exist, but it does exist 30 years later (henceforth "the future"). When it is created, time travel is immediately outlawed for obvious reasons. For other reasons left unexplained, it is nearly impossible to dispose of a body in the future. To counter this, the mafia, run by a powerful and enigmatic figure (known as "the Rainmaker"), has appropriated the device necessary for time travel to send their victims back in time 30 years to a remote location, where a present-day "looper" stands waiting for his target's arrival with a blunderbuss. Payment—in silver—is strapped to the poor soul's body.

After all is said and done, the looper incinerates the body, and it's as if the murder never happened. The only catch to the job is that a looper's existence in the future is potential evidence to the crimes. If a looper is alive after 30 years, he is sent back as a target, and in what can only be seen as a sadistic act of cruelty, the looper himself is assigned to kill his future self.  It's retirement or, in the film's terminology, "closing your loop" (In keeping with tradition, payment for this job is in gold).

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, unrecognizable under some crafty makeup) is one of these loopers, and after a lengthy but fascinating stretch of exposition, his future self, whom we will call "Old Joe" (Bruce Willis), appears before Joe during one of his jobs. Old Joe fights back and runs away.

For all its inventive twists and variations, Johnson's most ingenious accomplishment in the film is the way he continually shifts perspectives and sympathies throughout the course of the story. Johnson makes the stakes for Joe crystalline in one of the film's most clever and certainly most disturbing sequence (one of two in the film with an effect that reduced me to simply writing an expletive in my notes). In it, Seth (Paul Dano), another looper, finds himself on the run from the mob's boss (Jeff Daniels) after failing to kill his own future self (Frank Brennan). We follow Old Seth around while he's on the run and, suddenly, parts of his body begin disappearing. Follow the logic of how that could happen.

Joe is not an unsullied hero, though (There's a reason the mob got to Seth in the first place), and Johnson gives us a flash-forward montage of his life until the point in which Old Joe is sent back in time to further clarify that fact. He becomes a ruthless mafia enforcer until meeting a woman (Qing Xu) who changes him.

Old Joe, who has decided to make the best use of his impossible situation to save that woman, instantly has our sympathy. Johnson gets a lot of mileage—both comic (Old Joe giving his younger self travel advice) and novel—from what Old Joe knows; as Joe goes about his task to find his future self, Old Joe receives new memories of his younger self's actions (The tragedy of it is that he also begins losing others as Joe begins to alter the life the older man has known).

Old Joe's mission raises the old moral quandary: Given the chance to go back in time, would you kill someone you knew would become a monster. This brings the story and Joe to a farm in the middle of nowhere, where a single mother named Sara (Emily Blunt, whose character remains the one constant in the fluctuating moral environment) is raising her son Cid (Pierce Gagnon). Cid and two other children are Old Joe's suspects as the potential future villain who ruined his life. Again, follow the logic of this plan, and see how Old Joe's motives become sinister.

Looper contains the seemingly prerequisite chase and shootout sequences, and Johnson affords them the same gusto—and some humor, too (Joe teams up with some mafia goons to pursue Old Joe until they realize they're supposed to catch him, as well)—as the film's weaving but precise plotting. It's slightly remarkable how such disparate elements come together into such a satisfying whole, and Johnson's insistence that we actively consider the film's moral conundrums is the glue.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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