By Derek Czura
It's 2044 in Kansas, a desolate lighthouse of American poverty. The country outskirts are still serene and untouched, scenes that beckon back quiet old time films. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) patiently waits in a field, eyeing his pocketwatch in one hand while holding a blunderbuss in the other, enunciating french that washes through his head from earbuds. A man suddenly appears hunched over, gagged and covered on top of a square sheet unruffled by the slight wind that gently moves the nearby dried crops. The man is abruptly shot dead in the chest and flies backwards. Attached to his back are a packed pad of silver bars, the agreed money for a Looper.
Rian Johnson ambitiously returns to cinema with Looper, a freshly original take on time travel, legacies, and a little commentary on the future of society. As Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character explains: Time travel doesn't yet exist, but when it does in 30 years it will be immediately banned, only to be used by higher echelon criminal organizations to completely erase the existence of an unfavorable party. The system is seemingly simple and only briefly explained: the target for a Looper in the futre is fitted with a back full of silver bars (future currency), put into a small circular machine (somewhat reminiscent of Deja Vu by the late Tony Scott), and sent to a location to be immediately killed, wrapped, and put into a furnace. This is quick, efficient, and effortless. The person is completely expunged from the future.
Loopers use a short range blunderbuss to take out their targets, grab their money, cycle their normal work day, and then "live the good life". This involves cruising around town in a red Miata (the heir apparent hot-shit car in the future), spending money on ocular liquid drugs, and fancying a stripper or two. Some are even lucky enough to have a slight genetic mutation that allows them to float small metal objects as a neat hobby (simply called TK). The streets are impoverished, where law enforcement seems non-existant as a man who attempts to steal another person's backpack is shot dead in a street as the sidewalk is full of onlookers.
Johnson didn't join the film business to make simple, if you look back to his previous work (his excitingly fresh take on neo-noir Brick, and his somewhat slumpy yet enjoyable con artist caper The Brothers Bloom) he is innovative, attentive, and challenging. It is my presumption that he isn't interested in what many people will view today's movies as "escapist". We are left early on in Looper (if you saw no previews) wondering about Joe's interest in French, how he acquired his job, and what would it be like if he were to meet his future self. Rest assured, many people can ascribe to the notion that Johnson is keen enough to address all of these, but what we will focus on the most is the premise of the film; co-existing with his future self when he is assigned to kill him.
Looper's work on soft 30-year contract, and are overseen by their from-the-future boss Abe (Jeff Daniels). The good ones like Joe flourish in the business, while other supporting characters such as Seth (Paul Dano, as strung out as usual with no milkshakes in sight), and Kid Blue (Noah Segan, a staple in all of Johnson's films) highlight the backlash of business shortcomings. Once their purpose has been served or something goes awry in the future, they are assigned to kill their future self, stated as "closing the loop". They get a golden bar payday, and get to enjoy their slice of life before they disappear as their future self did. The main contradiction most people will have here is the choice of "letting your loop go", which is self-explanatory, and also a huge mistake.
While the film's premise is already appealling, the co-existance of the young and old self adds more dynamic to the film. Johnson specifically tailored Gordon-Levitt's physical appearence to resemble Willis', including colored lenses, and a furrowed brow that seems pretty corny looking at times, but is accurate. The older self is seasoned from actually living a life into the future, so seasoned that they are able to understand how their younger self works.
This includes thought patterns, locations, and ultimately choices. A nifty bonus is their ability to have a cognitive connection with their current self, a mental linkage that allows them one step ahead of the other. Obviously Old Joe (Bruce Willis) finds ways to avoid his younger self with the aforementioned advantages. At this time Johnson weaves a montage of scenes to show us a glimpse of Young Joe closing his loop, the evolution from a young gun to a seasoned old man who comes across love that was absent in his younger life, and the problems that has as well.
The film does stumble a little bit once we are introduced to Old Joe's purpose for being a target for a closed loop: the future is dealing with a threat known as "The Rainmaker", who has been specifically targetting Loopers for reasons unknown, and Old Joe acquired a piece of information that he believes will lead him to killing said villain before he has a chance to grow old and put wrath upon the world. A mix of morality, personal values, and common ground help the movie stay pat on its foundation for the remainder.
While the film is a futuristic think-tank on time travel and science fiction, it still presents a lot of unanswered issues. The first is character-centric, which the production may have flubbed on by bringing in one trick pony Bruce Willis, who even in the future is still a one-dimensional character who can walk in a straight line while firing two automatic weapons and not get hurt. His staleness only muddles the film, but do we really require more from what his character has to offer?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stands tall, but I'm unsure if he is able to carry a movie by himself yet (I got kind of an Orlando Bloom with Kingdom of Heaven vibe), especially with all of the supporting work he has shined with in the last few years. His interactions with other characters including a farmer (Emily Blunt, who in my opinion has yet to show huge range in any film) and her son (Pierce Gagnon, a neat surprise of fervor and emotion for someone his age) that he finds as refuge have a somber feeling as the plot progresses.
Jeff Daniels serves his purpose as the Animal Mother, but something that could have been addressed (with him being from the future) is the absence of his younger self. Is he across the country, hidden, unknown possibly? It would have been an interesting note to play, instead of dealing with Noah Segan's annoying and unnecessary character who seemed forced into the movie; and Paul Dano, the dumb friend that we learn from.
The last bit is the idea of time travel itself. Now rest assured, this isn't Primer by any means (if you haven't watched this movie, go buy a bottle of Aspirin and watch it until you think you might understand all of the dynamics and timeline; I have yet to do so), but it isn't fighting with kid gloves either. We are left in the dark as to how time travel is invented, as well as the specifics of how it's used. After thinking it over it seems more convenient that people are transported back to appear in the middle of nowhere to get killed and have the looper be paid ... but if this can be achieved ... can't they simply just use the time machine to send someone into a crocodile-infested swamp somewhere in South America or an active volcano? Did the people in the present and future both have to scout for specific locations to make it more convenient for loopers? Why are some people sent to slum locations inside the city? Where are all the police at? I saw Timecop, apparently Johnson didn't.
Nonetheless Johnson has produced a quality film which will hopefully pave the way for future (rimshot) movies that will be more slated to address the subsistance of our epistemic views in film. As more people go to the theatres and talk about these types of films, the more chances we will get for directors and actors to not only challenge themselves, but challenge their audience even more.