Grade: 93 (A)
With his 2005 high school-noir Brick, Rian Johnson established himself as one of the most exciting new filmmakers around. With his flawed but fascinating 2008 follow-up The Brothers Bloom, Johnson upped his ambition considerably. Now with Looper, Johnson has attempted to make a Christopher Nolan-like crossover into mainstream filmmaking. But Johnson hasn’t made a safe, predictable studio film here. Rather, Looper is as twisty-turny as his previous films, and it only further showcases why Johnson is one of the leading talents in film today.
After an economic collapse, organized crime took an upswing in the United States. In 2074, time travel was invented and immediately outlawed. The mob now uses time travel illegally in order to dispose of bodies (near impossible in their time due to new tracking technology) by sending their captures back to 2044, where specially trained killers called “loopers” shoot and dispose of them. Additionally, the mob occasionally sends the loopers’ future selves back from to the past in order to erase any connection to them by killing them; this is called “closing the loop”. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper, and a damn good one at that. But when a future version of himself (Bruce Willis) escapes, Joe has to catch him before his boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) and his loose-cannon enforcer Kid Blue (Noah Segan) decide to fix the problem by killing Joe. Things get complicated when Joe learns what Old Joe has planned and a farmer, Sara (Emily Blunt) and her odd son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) get mixed up.
Saying any more would be an act of cruelty. As with any of Johnson’s films, part of the fun is getting blindsided by the ways the director twists the story in unexpected ways. Without a doubt one could nit-pick certain details about the way time travel works in this film, but the important thing is that Johnson has thought the world of the film through exceptionally well, and that he seamlessly integrates details that start out as futuristic bric-a-brac only to become more important to the plot. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a skilled action director, and his best set-pieces suggest a cross between Christopher Nolan and the Coen Brothers (a fitting description of Johnson’s style as a storyteller, come to think of it). Johnson also has a way with actors: Jeff Daniels gives his best performance since The Squid and the Whale as a sardonic mob boss who doesn’t need to raise his voice to be threatening. Also excellent: Paul Dano as a sniveling associate of Gordon-Levitts, Segan (Dode in Brick) as a dumb but brash enforcer, Blunt as the heart of the film, and a remarkably unmannered and unprecious performance from young Gagnon.
This is Johnson’s second film with Gordon-Levitt after their previous collaboration on Brick. Gordon-Levitt has best stay in touch with Johnson, because few directors use him this well. The actor has a completely believable yet never distracting make-up job to look like a younger version of Willis (that is, a young version of modern Willis, not Willis in his Die Hard days), and he never goes for mere impersonation. He’s a brash, overconfident killer who has a bigger conscience than he thinks he does. Willis does some of his best work in ages as the older, wiser Joe, but the central theme in Looper comes from how much we change as we age, how we promise not to make the same mistakes, and yet how we manage to be blind to how closely our present situation mirrors our past. And then there’s the ending, which only a total bastard would spoil here. I’ll just say this: what are we willing to give up in order to do right?