Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Film Review – Looper

If you are into violent, complex sci-fi, then Looper is the movie for you. And I want to emphasize the violent, because it was not something for which I was prepared. The opening shot is shocking in its immediate bloody impact. This is not a bad thing, but it took me a moment to acclimate myself to the movie’s darker tone.

But that is not to say that Looper is a mindless bloodbath. To the contrary, it requires you to pay close attention to the plot. The story takes place in 2042. 30 years in the future from that point (2072), time travel has been invented but outlawed. The only people who use time travel mobsters. Because people can be tracked in the future, making murder nearly impossible, targets are sent back 30 years to be killed and disposed. The killers are called Loopers. They get paid silver for each hit until the Looper’s future self is sent back for the Looper to kill (which is known as closing the Loop). At that point, the Looper is paid gold and has 30 years until they are target for execution.

Now that is just the set-up. The plot involves the youngest Looper named Joe (the always awesome Joseph Gordon-Leavitt). He was plucked from hopeless poverty by the local boss Abe (Jeff Daniels), a father-like figure who “put a gun in his hand.” He is a selfish drug addict who can’t help but feel trapped by his circumstances. But Joe’s future self (Bruce Willis) is sent back to close his loop, but lets him escape.

Earlier in the film we see what happens when a Looper fails to close his Loop, and it is horrific. Seriously, the terrible scene still sticks with me days after watching. But it is important to understand how dire Joe’s situation is. The stakes are high and then only get higher as the movie progresses.
The main feat of this movie is not its special effects or its complex plot. It is how it gets you to shift sides. Usually you have a clear good guy and a clear bad guy. Or you have two characters with who are neither so you don't get invested in a side. Here, writer/director Rian Johnson gets you one one character's side and then moves you to another (I won't say how many times). This is a difficult thing, because once you made your allegiance in your mind to a character, siding against them might make you angry at the movie. But Johnson deftly and effortlessly moves your loyalty by virtue of his well-written characters.

The main problem with the movie is also one of its strengths: it takes you in unexpected directions. This leads to some truly fresh surprises. But they commit the narrative sin of introducing important characters too late in the plot. About half way through the movie, we stumble on a farm run by Sara (Emily Blunt) and her little boy Cid (a wonderfully scary Pierce Gagnon). These two play a pivotal role in the story (though I will not reveal that here). The problem is that once we get to the farm, it feels like we are watching a different movie. It's almost as if the previous hour was a set up to the beginning of another film.

The other problem is that it feels like there's about 10% of important plot points that we are missing. For example, Sara knows about Loopers, something very secret in this time. But they never explore how she knows, even though it feels like this is essential to understanding the rest of the plot regarding her and her son.

But for all of that, the film was very good. The performances are excellent. Gordon-Leavitt has gotten some flack for only doing a Bruce Willis impersonation underneath prosthetic make-up. I disagree. He does carry Willis' mannerisms, but he is not doing an impression. He is performing a character. You feel for Joe's plight, but Gordon-Leavitt never lets you forget that he is a killer. Willis is as good as ever. He is one part Kyle Reese, one part Terminator; you feel the pain of his journey, but you believe him as someone who could look you in the eyes and pull the trigger. Blunt is also excellent, but underutilized. As I said, I felt like there was so much more there to explore. There is much to explore in this world with its throwback language to shoddy guns called “blunderbusses” and pistols called “gats.”

The most fun scene in the movie is where Willis and Gordon Leavitt talk in a diner. The scene goes on for a while, but it is fascinating. It confronts us with a truth we sometimes forget: we think of our future and past selves as other people. How often have we wished we could talk to our younger selves about not making those stupid decisions of youth? We think of them as “other.” When we think of our future selves and the consequences they'll have to deal with for all the McNuggets we scarf down, we don't worry because they are “other.” Rian Johnson has taken that abstract concept and made it wonderfully concrete.

Thematically the movie is also fairly rich. It explores the lengths of what a man will do to “hold on to what's his.” What will we do to hold onto material things like our money, or even more valuable things like our loved ones? But in the end, aren't both selfish? Aren't both simply about doing what you're doing for yourself? We can universally understand holding on to what's yours by right. But sometimes its not about what's fair to you.  As a Catholic, we are taught that we have certain rights because we are human.  And yet, sometimes we are called to let go of those rights in order to help another.  But are we capable of such heroism?

  Looper explores this and other philosophical questions in a smart, action-packed thriller.

4 out of 5 stars.

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