Review: Gordon-Levitt and Willis take 'Looper' full circle
It's a rush to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis portray the same man 30 years apart in the coolly smart, head-spinning sci-fi thriller 'Looper.'
By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
September 27, 2012, 3:45 p.m.
"Looper" is way inventive but it wears its creativity lightly, like it's no big deal. This is a highflying, super-stylish science-fiction thriller that brings a fresh approach to mind-bending genre material. We're not always sure where this time-travel film is going, but we wouldn't dream of abandoning the ride.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt, "Looper" demonstrates what a sharp and focused imagination can do when no one fences it in. Johnson gave us a taste of his ability in "Brick," the 2005 Sundance film also starring Gordon-Levitt, but this is that promise fulfilled.
Because its futuristic framework is so specific and so carefully worked out, "Looper's" world takes a while to outline in words. And it can be a challenge to follow the film's head-spinning narrative twists, such as having Gordon-Levitt and Willis sitting opposite each other in a riveting scene as the same man separated by 30 years of time.
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Keeping us involved are convincing work by actors who make us buy the unbelievable and Johnson's gift for smart, exhilarating filmmaking. He's a director with a natural flair for visual style (Steve Yedlin is the excellent cinematographer) and an ear for the kind of wised-up dialogue that almost allows Jeff Daniels, irresistible as an exasperated bad guy, to walk away with the picture.
Perhaps the best thing about "Looper" is the feeling of uncertainty it conveys, the delicious sense that we are in only partially charted territory, that things can and will happen that are deeply unexpected. Despite the plot's unmistakable genre underpinnings, there's a surprising ruthlessness to what takes place here, the sense of a story that has the nerve to play by its own rules.
"Looper" opens, typically as it turns out, with an arresting, unnerving scene. Gordon-Levitt's Joe is alone in an empty Kansas field, a large tarp carefully laid out in front of him, an imposing weapon known as a blunderbuss in his hands.
Joe checks his watch and, right on schedule, a bound and hooded man materializes on the tarp. Joe kills him at once, removes the handful of silver ingots taped to the body that is his pay, disposes of the corpse and goes out to party, another day's work safely behind him.
The year is 2044 and Joe is employed as a looper, a profession that takes some explaining. As Joe's voice-over reveals, time travel will be invented in 2074, then promptly banned. The only people who continue to use it, albeit clandestinely, are big-time organized criminals who, finding body disposal difficult in the future, hit on the idea of sending targets back in time 30 years and having specialized assassins kill them: "Taking out the future's garbage" is how the stoic Joe thinks about it, when he thinks about it at all.
One of the quirks of the looping profession (likely named to reference time-travel theories involving causal loops) is that it is mandated that, at some point, you will end up unknowingly shooting the future version of yourself, an act called "closing your loop." You will get a big payoff in gold ingots and go off to enjoy the last 30 years of your life.
Joe's carefully segmented world — which involves hanging with best friend and fellow looper Seth (an effective Paul Dano) and a dalliance with party girl Suzie (Piper Perabo), as well as constant use of a potent narcotic administered via eye drops — is not fated to last.
One afternoon Joe has the tarp ready for his next intended victim but everything goes wrong. Not only is the man not tied up, he's not hooded, and Joe immediately recognizes him as the older version of himself. Though Joe knows the dangers involved in not pulling the trigger, in doing what's called "letting your loop run," circumstances conspire to enable old Joe (Willis) to escape.
It's at this point that "Looper's" plot goes into overdrive. Though they are technically the same man, the difference in age means that Joe (Gordon-Levitt underwent extensive makeup changes to bolster the resemblance to Willis) and his older self have different dreams, different goals for their lives. What it says in the film's ad line — "Hunted by your future, haunted by your past" — turns out to be the truth.
"Looper's" plot is way more complicated than you can imagine, and it couldn't hope to succeed without strong acting by all concerned, starting with Gordon-Levitt and a very committed Willis. Also doing potent work are Blunt as the inevitable woman of mystery and compelling child actor Pierce Gagnon as her self-possessed 10-year-old son, Cid. Best of all is Daniels, who gives an electric, eclectic performance as a man from the future fed up with living in the past.
Because "Looper's" plot is hard to get your head around, the film also counts on its involving future world to keep us in the story. Working with production designer Ed Verreaux and cinematographer Yedlin, Johnson has created an interesting riff on the usual dystopian future by emphasizing elements, such as pervasive homeless encampments, that convincingly play like today's problems run amok.
One of the memorable lines in Johnson's script has Daniels' gangster-from-the-future Abe casting a disparaging eye on Joe's style of dress and telling him, "The movies you are dressing like are just copying other movies." The best thing about "Looper" is that it doesn't feel like it's copying anything at all.