[EDITOR'S NOTE: For some reason, Joshua Starnes' original review for Looper didn't come through in its entirety, but got cut off at the start of the third paragraph. We've now got the full review up online; apologies to Joshua for the mixup...]
God, I would have loved to have been in the pitch meeting for this thing. “Okay, so it’s like The Terminator, right? Except John Connor’s the bad guy, and the Terminator’s target is himself. Oh, and people can move shit with their minds. Okay, it’s not really like The Terminator at all.”
Depending on whose hands it’s in, time travel is either a ridiculously ill-used plot conceit that is ignored when it’s not useful or a tool for an prepared storyteller to take apart the rules of narrative and put them back together again. In the hands of writer-director Rian Johnson (The Brothers Bloom), Looper is most definitely the latter.
But it’s not Looper‘s complex and original plot that makes it so good. It is its utter faithfulness to moral ambiguity. It is about bad men whose motivations you cannot condone but which you completely understand. Specifically, one bad man, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a drug addict hitman working his way through a life of petty violence. Joe is a very specific kind of hitman; he’s a looper. Criminals in the 2070s have discovered the perfect way to hide people willing to give evidence: by sending them back in time, where specialized hitman-loopers dispose of them.
That sort of anonymous and remorseless killing takes a toll on a person after a while, and Joe is no different. When he’s not doing his job, he’s deadening his senses through a steady diet of drugs and hookers. And it’s a life he would like to get back to, thank you very much, as soon as he takes care of one tiny problem: killing his older self from the future (Bruce Willis), who has been sent back in time to die by Joe’s mysterious bosses.
And then things get complicated.
But — and this is what elevates Looper over its high-concept ilk — Johnson isn’t particularly interested in its high concept. In fact, he prefers to brush over the implications of time travel as often as he can because, “then we’d just end up sitting here making diagrams out of straws.” Oh, sure, he’s not above using it for an interesting visual gag or plot twist, but ultimately it’s about getting his characters where he needs them to be and then sitting back to see what happens.
Johnson has made a particular effort to draw lines from the two Joes to the various supporting characters that come and go, giving all of them moments that resonate when they really land later on. He’s helped tremendously by a cast giving its all, even characters who only get one real scene like Joe’s preferred hooker (Piper Perabo) and his current day boss Abe (Jeff Daniels), who lives in a bunker inside a bunker.
But the real highlights are Gordon-Levitt and Willis, who have to do strong work and carry an action movie. Gordon-Levitt, in particular, has the difficult job of being a complete shit who is also relatable and charming, a man at odds with himself (literally). And he basically pulls it off, particularly once he meets farmer Sara (Emily Blunt) and finds something more than pillage and murder to live for.
He’s ably supported by Willis, the older, remorseful Joe, who is more awake and alive than he has been in adventure film in years. In a movie filled with chases and explosions, the most electric scene is when the two Joes finally come face-to-face in a diner in middle-of-nowhere Kansas. And thanks to the power of Johnson’s script, your opinion on who you should be rooting for will change from moment to moment.
Johnson and production designer Ed Verreaux have created an interesting near-future (about 40 years away) for young Joe and his loopers to live in, mixing high-tech, Blade Runner-like skyscrapers and flying bikes with old farms and broken-down streets and slums and cars and a world covered in overpopulation. It’s not a surprise Joe chooses drugs over facing reality. It feels futuristic but real, the hardest “get” in science fiction design.
Johnson himself directs with a sure hand and a sly wit, moving his camera slowly and often letting it get on-scene just before action happens or just after in order to build tension. He also, for all the gunplay and explosions and blood, ignores the temptation to go over the top, showcasing his action scenes with a fair amount of reality, which makes them hit that much more.
Keep in mind going in that Looper is a future noir film and plays by those rules. It’s about bad men doing bad things in a world of little to no hope. And it does it brilliantly.
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Young Joe; Bruce Willis as Old Joe; Emily Blunt as Sara; Paul Dano as Seth; Noah Segan as Kid Blue; Piper Parabo as Suzie; Jeff Daniels as Abe; Pierce Gagnon as Cid; Qing Xu as Old Joe’s Wife; Garret Dillahunt as Jesse; Frank Brennan as Old Seth.