Time travel is tricky. The intricacies of it, the endless possibilities for paradox and timeline diffusion, can wreak havoc on a narrative, and the most brilliant touch of Rian Johnson’s “Looper” is the way it quickly dismisses any in-depth delving into its own logic.
“Looper” takes place 30 years from now, in a future where time travel has been invented but is only used by the mob for easy disposal of bodies. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper, someone who kills victims sent back in time, and he struggles with the realities of his life even as his cash stacks up. Then he’s asked to “close his loop,” which means killing his future self (played by Bruce Willis). Unfortunately Old Joe has a different idea and easily escapes his youthful counterpart, sending the two off on a wild cat-and-mouse chase.
And that’s only the first half of the film. What makes “Looper” so special is the way that its central moral question doesn’t even come into play until well into its second act. Writer-director Johnson has turned in a film that isn’t afraid to play with the audience’s expectations of genre or narrative. Johnson’s script is full of intellectual and emotional complexities, and it asks some extremely difficult questions of the audience.
Perhaps my favorite part of “Looper” is how each character could be either the protagonist or antagonist, depending on your interpretation of the story.
However, none of this would work without Gordon-Levitt. He literally disappears into the role, wearing a prosthetic nose to resemble Willis, and it’s his best performance to date. Gordon-Levitt not only creates his own character here, but he also brings the characteristics of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars to the role without being distracting, and it’s uncanny how well he imitates Willis’ trademark smirk while still turning in moving, star-caliber work.
The rest of the cast is brimming with talented actors. Willis isn’t asked to stray too far from his comfort zone, but he is perhaps the film’s most interesting figure, a good guy doing horrible things for the right reason. Jeff Daniels is having a blast as Joe’s contact in the modern day, a crime boss who has some of the best lines in the film.
This is where I would normally discuss what I didn’t like about the film, but I honestly have no complaints to lodge against “Looper.” It’s a true science fiction triumph and a massive step forward for Rian Johnson. Johnson deploys some very neat visual tricks throughout the film and creates a fully rendered future for his characters, not to mention staging some pivotal moments with genuine cinematic flair.
At this year’s Fantastic Fest, movies of wildly varied genres from all over the world were screened, and the best film at that festival was easily “Looper.” When a studio film stands out amidst the bright lights of independent cinema, you know you’ve got something special on your hands, and “Looper” is certainly that. It’s one of the best films of the year, written with emotion and intelligence in mind and directed with an eye for economic but alluring visuals. Any fan of science fiction, noir or simply outstanding filmmaking would be loath to miss this one.
Printed on Friday, September 28, 2012 as: Two plain Joes embody complex roles of sci-fi time-jumping killers