2:05 pm Sep. 28, 2012
“Those movies you’re imitating are copying other movies,” a blasé crime boss (Jeff Daniels) chides Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s highly specialized young hit man near the beginning of Looper, Rian Johnson’s fervid, formidable new time-travel thriller.
Daniels is referring to Gordon-Levitt’s tie—a “twentieth century affectation” out of place in the story’s dystopian 2044 Kansas metropolis setting—but the allusion reverberates throughout Looper, which moves from Breathless to Blade Runner and back in a neon flash cut. Looper's most basic lift is also its biggest: the premise is that of a quintessential twentieth century time travel movie, which is to say it derives Chris Marker's 1962 La jetée, in which a character skips back a few decades to try and prevent a modern apocalypse. Of course this is also to say Looper derives from Terry Gilliam's 1995 film 12 Monkeys, itself lifted more directly from La jetée. And yet it is Johnson's melée that is more conspicuously under the influence—of jetée and many others. The effect is too obvious not to aspire to something original: the first postmodern time travel movie. That Gordon-Levitt (who shares his character’s name, Joe; Johnson wrote the part for the actor) is literally imitating the Bruce Willis of blow ‘em up movies past—from an iffy prosthetic brow and beak to the furrowed bemusement and sensual arrogance—is only the top layer of a mille feuille of references so dense they grow light again, never more so than the moment (12 Monkeys star) Willis himself steps on the screen.
2044 would be roughly thirty years out from here; thirty years out from Joe’s time is where most of his marks reside. As he explains in an opening blurt of voice-over, by 2074 time travel has become both possible and illegal. The crime syndicates running the country use it to make their enemies literally disappear, sending them back to the weapon-bearing arms of someone like Joe, who promptly blows them away.
There’s a lot going on in that voice-over: In 2074 it’s “almost impossible” to dispose of bodies; Joe and his fellow “loopers” use pseudo-RPG’s called “blunderbusses” to kill, despite the fact that they only have a 15-yard range; it’s not unusual for your future self to be sent back for disposal, with a few extra gold bricks strapped to his torso for the trouble. That’s called “closing the loop.” Well, okay. Sure?
In movies, time travel usually has more to offer as a narrative pretext than a functional plot conceit. Attempting the latter risks spiraling into amateur physics hour, with the pursuit of endless recursions and contingencies gumming up the story. In Looper time travel is the squeaky hinge upon which a striking array of ideas about fate and freewill, selfhood and the greater good, and (least successfully) nature versus nurture depend for their expression. Johnson drops several lines about the futility of looking closely at the finer points of the story’s logic into the script, hits of his typically self-conscious wit (Gordon-Levitt makes a quick, gratuitous check of his hairline at one point; a gun-twirling henchman played by Noah Segan makes a professional hazard of machismo). It’s all meant to grease the way to a just-go-with-it good time and leaven the atmosphere of startling but ill-defined darkness.
Joe’s city, for instance, is a nihilistic hellhole divided into a criminal class and a vast and disposable vagrant population. Human life appears to have been devalued along with the dollar, so that the homeless are wasted with impunity and the future is just a place with more people to kill. Joe’s life is deadening and full of death, as illustrated here in Groundhog Day style: steak and eggs for breakfast, clockwork cornfield assassinations all afternoon, check in on a favorite stripper (Piper Perabo) at night. Joe is saving his silver and studying French; a vague plan to move to France maintains his interest in the future, though he obliterates much of the present with opiates dispensed as amber eye drops.
The guy’s not much to root for, a design made explicit when Joe rats out his best friend Seth (a quailing Paul Dano). Stricken by the childhood memory his future self (Frank Brennan) calls up in desperation, Seth has a failure of nerve and…lets himself go. Both boys are presented as orphans, and much is made of a mother’s love: poor, godless Joe just wants a woman to run her hands through his (vanishing) hair the way his mother did; the best his substitute father (Daniels) could do was put a gun in his hands. The motif becomes a full-blown thesis by the end of the film, when a countrified Emily Blunt is promising to be the best dang mommy in the world to her young son (Pierce Gagnon), if only to prevent him from becoming the devil incarnate.
Sorry, did that throw you? Looper takes a similarly blunt turn midway through, after Willis eludes death at the hands of his younger self and sets out to kill the kid who grows up to be a world-ruining (and wife-killing) tyrant known as “The Rainmaker.” To do so he must evade Daniels’s henchmen—including Young Joe, who is determined to preserve his present self at all costs. The Joes share only a couple of scenes, which feels like a shame, though there’s little time to mourn any one of the paths Johnson lays out before stealing down yet another. Young Joe’s myopic self-interest is reflected in Blunt’s reformed party girl, a sassy farm-dweller who gave up city life to take care of the son she had abandoned. What Joe is doing at her farm, like much of the story, is revealed in due time; Johnson’s scene-level skill instills the kind of narrative confidence that keeps you buckled in through the bumps and stretches of undefined landscape.
The rewards for that trust include a Willis reunion with a pile of semiautomatics so ecstatic it veers into farce, a sex scene as gratuitous as is it gratifying, and a couple of spine-wrenching twists, one that nearly ruins the film and one that fully saves it. It doesn’t occur to either Joe to save the world; despite the elder’s claims of a better, more complete life ahead for our young cipher, in Looper each man is squarely, chillingly out for his own. If no love is lost between them, both discover that salvation is only born of human bonds.
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