Monday, October 1, 2012

Review: "Looper"

Director: Rian Johnson
Runtime: 118 minutes

Introduce time travel into a narrative, and a suddenly a whole can of worms breaks open. No matter how hard a writer tries, there are issues involving time travel that are difficult to avoid. All movies, even character-centric indie dramas, tend to have at least one plot hole or element that requires suspension of disbelief. With time travel narratives, the opportunities only multiply. So it stands to its credit that Looper, the big (ish) budget breakout film from director Rian Johnson, succeeds as a compelling piece of entertainment, even if it still has some elements that, upon further thought, might possibly invalidate the entire narrative.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who starred in Johnson's debut, Brick (2005), plays Joe, a looper for crime lords. Loopers are recruited in the film's present of 2044, to take out targets zapped back from 30 years in the future. As established via some voice over from Joe and some tight editing, Joe is quite good at his job, and enjoys a life of sex, drugs, and possibly rock 'n' roll (the jury is still out on that last one). Things get messy, however, when Joe's unseen bosses decide to close his loop, which means that Joe's future self (Bruce Willis) is sent back as Joe's target, along with a severance payment for his remaining 30 years of life. As established earlier in a stunning sequence involving fellow looper Seth (Paul Dano), it's not exactly a good idea to let your future self go. Yet future Joe gets a jump on his younger self and escapes, and sets Joe off on a chase to capture his future self and evade his boss' hit men.

One immediate problem that comes up is why would crime lords send a looper's future self back to that looper? Why not just send it to someone else so there wouldn't be any chance for hesitation or doubt? That's the sort of thing that happens when you mess with time travel and co-existing realities. But even though Johnson, smart writer that he is, falls into some time travel traps, his direction does an impeccable job of smoothing things over for the ride. Most impressive is the long stretch involving Gordon-Levitt and Willis' first encounter, shown multiple times to the point where it almost becomes intentionally comical. And, despite the script's use of voice over narration throughout, Johnson does give himself moments to simply let the visuals carry the narrative with compelling results.

Better yet is that Johnson hasn't forgotten how to write characters in his transition to more mainstream filmmaking. The roles filled out by Gordon-Levitt, Willis, and Emily Blunt (as a farmer who shelters an injured younger Joe) all have room to breathe as real characters despite the complex sci-fi premise. Despite the film providing an opportunity for Gordon-Levitt to be the true star, it's his two main co-stars who end up running away with the film. Willis moves just far enough outside of his star persona to deliver a performance laced with fear, anger, and regret, all fueled by injustices in his past and present. Just as surprising is Blunt, who is thankfully given much more to work with than 'love interest sucked into the chaos.' Her relationships with her son (Pierce Gagnon), and Gordon-Levitt give the actress the sort of range she hasn't had room to display in quite some time. Gordon-Levitt gives a solid turn, but he's ultimately the least interesting, as his stakes feel the most basic and least layered. Still, the actions between and among the leads, along with their individual moments, provide enough genuine emotion to make these people worth following. 

This is crucial, because after its more typical first half or so, Looper settles down into the more gradual build up for its hectic (but never rushed) finale. Yet with the characters and environment so smoothly set up, this doesn't become a problem. What could have become a dragging attempt at character development instead enriches the narrative and provides its own gunshot-free moments of intensity. If Looper's screenplay is held back by issues from the time travel conceit, it benefits immensely from Johnson's ability to tell the story and build the characters in such an engaging way without disrupting the pacing. Johnson also isn't afraid to make his world full of real consequences. Without spoiling anything, let's just say that Looper's gunplay doesn't come blood-free (the R-rating is certainly earned).

From a filmmaking standpoint, Looper is certainly aces. The editing (especially in the scenes driven strictly by visuals) is tight and controlled and stitches together the narrative with an intelligence that overrides the time travel conceit. Visuals and effects are nicely handled as well. Despite the $30 million budget, nothing in Looper ever looks less than seamless, whether it's the hover bikes or the futuristic skylines. Nathan Johnson's score also contributes nice touches here and there, and manages to stand out (in a good way) in the last few minutes. And, despite the presence of gunplay, the sound design makes sure than any bit of violence has impact, and that the film never descends into a muddled cacophony of gunfire and shouting. Regardless of conceptual issues, Johnson can pride himself on the overall package here.

It is only in the final seconds that Looper's spell starts to weaken. As nicely drawn as the characters are, the the film does occasionally surrender to the circumstances. The ending is nice enough as it is, but it does come with the catch of presenting a thorny puzzle that doesn't quite add up. For all of the time spent with the characters, the ends of their arcs are surprisingly not as gripping as all of the build up. It's a classic case of the journey, and not the destination, being the selling point of the narrative. But what a well-made journey it is. If Johnson continues on the path to more mainstream filmmaking, let's hope that he strives to keep making films at this level or higher. The worlds of indie, arthouse, and foreign films have plenty of interesting voices, but mainstream cinema is desperately in need of more. Hopefully Johnson takes up the mantle.

Grade: B/B+

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