I’m 60 years-old. I’m retired and living in Sri Lanka on a tea farm I purchased for my long-lost love with whom I recently reunited. Don’t ask…just go with this fantasy, okay? She’s lying in bed next to me with her back against mine. A balmy midnight breeze blows in through the window and the white curtains scale up the walls and then billow down. My mind is similarly rising and falling in humidified thought. I can’t sleep. I saw something today that reminded me of a film I once saw a long time ago but I can’t quite place the moment or the film. She’s half-awake, too. She turns over to face me and runs her hand through my hair. I whisper to her, “Were you there with me? Do you remember that movie? It was soooo good. You know, the one about time travel where the guy was on the run from his future self and he hid out on that farm in Kansas with that beautiful woman and her little kid who could…”
…well, I don’t want to spoil it for you.
Behold the litany of reasons Rian Johnson’s Looper is an instant genre classic I will fondly recall when I’m 60 years-old:
- Writer/director Rian Johnson has an uncanny ability to take derivative elements (all of your classic futuristic sci-fi thriller/time travel tropes complete with epic themes on love and destiny and redemption) and re-packages them into a wholly original gimmick. Yes, crime bosses from the year 2070-something are sending back people they want eighty-sixed to 2044 where “Loopers” have been hand-picked by one of their own (Jeff Daniels) who has set up permanent camp in the past to run these untraceable hits. Oopps…but now there is a new big boss, the Rainmaker, who wants to close all of the loops by sending back every remaining loopers’ future self to the past to be killed by themselves. Quite the pickle, see? Especially for one looper named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who messed with our heads before in Inception) and his future self (Bruce Willis, who’s no stranger to these types of cinematic loops thanks to Twelve Monkeys).
- Rian Johnson is a noir aficionado (hell, just take a gander at his first-film, Brick, where he made California high schoolers talk like a Dashiell Hammett novel) and fills the film with all the hardboiled archetypes: the coffee-drinking hit man with the heart of gold and troubled past, the cute and sassy diner waitress, the toss-away stripper, etc… But they’re not just caricatures. There are emotions and back-story and development churning underneath the familiar and gritty surface. Meanwhile he lacquers the film in Lynchian sound-design, neo-noir aesthetics and a rocking blues-infused soundtrack.
- Though the time travel thread is indeed loopy and will scramble your mind if you try to trace the logic, it’s presented within the context of an otherwise plausible vision of the not-so-distant future where practical advances in technology have come to fruition, drugs are administered through eye drops, China is the one world super-power, the American economy is in shambles but progress plods on for the 1% and criminal set, and a lot of the stuff still looks like today…only older, over-grown, rusty, and with some solar panels slapped on top.
- Well, would you look at that! – prosthetic make-up to make Joseph Gordon-Levitt look like a young Bruce Willis that isn’t distracting; lens flares, slo-mo, voice-over and montages used properly; and special effects and set designs done on a modest budget that look better than 95% of overblown blockbusters.
- There’s also present a kid actor (Pierce Gagnon) who literally raises cane at one point in the film and can emote, appear mysterious, weird, lovable and sympathetic all at the same time without ever falling into the “suffocatingly cute” or “over-the-top creepy” clap-trap that has sunk many a lesser film and unfortunate child. It was a big gamble to write and cast this role with a five-year old, and the ultimate plausibility of the main narrative falls on this kid’s small shoulders. Somehow Rian Johnson works wonders with the tyke.
- And last and certainly not least…we have the oh-so-lovely and versatile Emily Blunt, donning a Mid-Western twang, blonde highlights and a healthy tan while pulling off the most expressive chin-acting this side of Claire Danes.
Admittedly Johnson has a few missteps with the pacing and the film completely lost me for about five minutes in its convoluted Möbius strip when (and I don’t think this is a spoiler) it appeared about a quarter-way through that a second future Joe came back to be killed by the younger Joe before the rest of the action was able to proceed. I’m honestly still not sure what happened there – but I rolled with it.
And it didn’t detract from the enormous entertainment value. There are moments in this film – like a post-coitus reflection delivered by a predawn lit and cigarette smoke encircled Emily Blunt with eerily heartfelt power - that you almost never find in mainstream studio films. Not since I was a teenager when I first saw Twelve Monkeys (with its similarly looping Willis-driven logic and tragic love story) have I been this emotionally involved in a sci-fi thriller.
Now where was I? Oh, yeah, that’s right. There’s a scene early on in Looper where Jeff Daniels’ character (remember, the one from the future-future running the looper crew in the past-future?) asks the young Joe why he’s learning French instead of Mandarin. He councils Joe, “Trust me, I’m from the future. Go to China. Not France.”
But Joe’s cool. He learns French.
And as for China – eh, I wouldn’t advise it. Perhaps Sri Lanka instead?
Written by David H. Schleicher