By: Daniel Reynolds
The title of Rian Johnson’s latest movie could not be more appropriate. Looper. Circular. Spinning. Forever and ever connected. One element of the film feeding into the next; until, of course, it does not. That sudden breathtaking leap between infinite recursion and wild flights of imagination is where you’ll find Johnson’s creation. His Looper is initially constructed (and definitely marketed) as a straight ahead action film but it gradually rolls out into broader fields, concerning itself with notions of identity, regret and loss.
The story starts with Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his job as a hitman for the city’s crime syndicate in the year 2044. Even given the future context, this is fairly straight ahead stuff, except, as Joe explains via a welcome voice over, the crime syndicate he works for actually exists thirty years in the future. Now, hang on. In that future time (2074), time travel has been invented, and has been made illegal, but gangsters use it to send their human targets back to the past (2044) to be killed. You got all that? As mind-bending an idea as that seems, Johnson’s script allows for a certain clarity of vision to assert itself – even after he begins introducing subsequent wrinkles to his concept.
The first wrinkle? Well, it comes cannon-balling into the film as Bruce Willis, playing the older version of Joe (hence Gordon-Levitt’s makeup choices). Young Joe is supposed to kill the older version of himself, to, in the parlance of the film, close his loop. I couldn’t help but think of Willis’ own history, which I’m sure Johnson was conscious of, with time traveling hijinks. Willis’ presence lends a certain weary credibility, his knowing eyes belie a heavy weight and knowledge of the future in his dealings with his younger self. There is a certain charm to be found in those dealings as the two Joes grapple with their actions and choices. Make no mistake, these two Joes are the same person, connected by body and memory, yet both are convinced that their actions can independently determine their fate; a fate that eventually collides with Sara (Emily Blunt), her son Cid (awesome child actor Pierce Gagnon; I swear, this kid gives the best withering stares) and the farmhouse that provides the film with not only its neo-western vibe, but also its central mystery.
It is here in the second half of the film, after the frenetic, complicated opening, when the pace drops and new surprising swerves are introduced. It clears out space to focus on these two characters (well, three, technically), Joe and Sara. They’re roughly the same age but are in very different stages of their lives. Sara seems haunted, atoning for sins of her past. Joe is looking forward to his next thirty years, his golden retirement. Here is where Johnson’s skill with character broadens, his spinning plot machinations slow to allow for an unfolding of ideas. The true fuel for the film’s momentum is found here, in these quieter moments, away from the gun fights and chase sequences charging out of the periphery.
Still, what a beautiful periphery. The vibrant margins of the film, familiar as they may be, touch on everything from end-of-days dystopic sci-fi to western showdowns to lawless gangster noir. The vortex of these effects is embodied by Jeff Daniels and his sly turn as a mobster from the future. Instead of amping up this character, Daniels plays him as bored, having quite literally seen it all before. He seems more concerned with Joe’s choice of tie than he does with the inherent danger of all this paradoxical time manipulation.
For a story about the perils of time travel, the film is not without a couple of holes. At times it feels like the movie pauses to make sure we still know what is going on (Gordon-Levitt’s voiceover is about as graceful as could be expected). And Johnson goes to great lengths to have his characters convince us to trust him and his story. He assures us that yes time travel is complicated, paradoxes are inherent, but try not to think too hard about it lest, as Daniels’ character opines, your brain gets fried like an egg.
This film works, while other time traveling movies have failed, because Johnson knows just which buttons to push to imbue his characters with life. As with The Brothers Bloom and Brick, the audience is swept up in a mystery that is worth solving. It is that reward of realization and discovery that pervades Johnson’s film. And while he perhaps gets a bit on-the-nose referential with it (Daniels again: “You know, those movies you like are just copying other movies”), the heart of the film beats so vibrantly that the loop of repetitive entertainments is broken and you end up seeing something brand new.