Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012)
This third film confirms the sneaking suspicion that many have had since Sundance breakthrough Brick (2005) showed the teeth of a true auteur-in-the-making: Rian Johnson is on his ways to becoming one of the most resounding, refreshing and talented voices in the landscape of American film and genre filmmaking. With every new project, he has not only showed a keen sense of style, but also a rare willingness not to pigeon-hole himself; to explore new territory and avenues for storytelling, Johnson having written all of his work to this day, with the exception of the two excellent episodes of Breaking Bad he’s guest-directed over the years: “Fly” (3x10) and “Fifty One” (5x04).
After the post-modern noir and the caper-comedy escapades of The Brothers Bloom, Johnson enters the pantheon of the philosophically-inclined science-fiction film with Looper, an end-of-the-world drama with hints of coming-of-age, expertly camouflaged as an action film – as influenced by The Witness (1985) as it is by Philip K. Dick, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (no kidding) and The Wizard of Oz (1939) – an element of comparison I particularly care to cling to. Looper should not be evaluated as the sum of its parts but name-dropping as I am doing here is crucial because Johnson’s latestis an expertly crafted and seamless amalgamation of elements (as opposed to, say, Tarantino’s collages) that stack on top of each other to create something new – at times compellingly familiar and at others breathtakingly unique.
Similarly, Looper accumulates clever science-fiction ideas to build a genuinely intriguing world against which it sets a deeply character-driven story. Dystopic without being overbearing about it, it’s a deeply satisfying vision of the future, in which time travel is established meticulously and rigorously (it comes as no surprise that Shane Carruth, director of 2004’s Primer and contemporary of Johnson, served as “math consultant” on this film). Johnson, admirable yet unstated stylist, gives vivid life to this world through subtle touches: strategic angling, lens flares, quick-cutting defining the city of the first half while wide shots of fields and the open blue sky define the mostly rural later half, during which it is impossible not to think of Breaking Bad’s own’s keen sense of locale — from the desert meeting of “Full Measure” (3x13) to the beautifully tragic shot of the river in “Say My Name” (5x07). Johnson had nothing to do with these episodes, but there is some Johnson in the show (or vice-versa) and it, eh, shows.
As described as “a story about the opportunity to talk to your older self”, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who shines, despite being buried under tons of face-warping make-up) and Bruce Willis (wearing the weight of his years as an action hero on his back more efficiently than any other vehicle could have provided) make this interaction work first and foremost as two, profoundly egotistical version of the same person, Young and Old Joe — one being almost altruistically so for reasons that profoundly differ from the other. The younger Joe’s growth, in the face of adversity, as well as his tragic discovery of the life-altering power of love and the possibilities of fate, becomes the film’s main concern and provides the story with stunning gravitas.
Indeed, most striking, perhaps, remains Looper’s bleak, emotional and philosophical complexity; layers of stimulating ideas and dystopian imagery becoming mere backdrop to Johnson’s exploration of heavier themes. Johnson structures his film very much like a loop, but rather than it being the cycle of death the titular loopers are stuck in, it is one of awakening and coming-of-age for young Joe: how much weight do our decisions have when put against the social paradigm – here, increasingly dystopic – that inform them? Furthermore, is there such a thing as fate and is love the main wild card of that pre-ordained existence? What about sharing consciousness with your future self? Seeing 30 years of a character’s life accelerated in a 3-4 minute montage certainly puts things into context and while this indicator of scale is solely reserved for the viewer, it propels Looper into becoming one of the most epic and expansive character studies put on screen in recent memory — tackling grand ideas that are hard to express upon first viewing, but that act as a deeply satisfying after-taste; one that balances Johnson’s seemingly straightforward narrative with a shocking weight of shattering realization.
Which brings me to this final point: most of Looper is set, stunningly, against a golden, shining rural Kansas – still untouched by civilization, the city looming over the horizon. It is Young Joe’s central workspace, the specific space-time nexus where his victims get transported back to. The idea of Kansas as a particularly fickle and fragile place in the tapestry of the space-time continuum (allowing Dorothy to travel to Oz, per example, or Old Joe Willis to find his way to the present) is amusing, at best, but becomes quite disturbing when one considers the notion of “home” (as in the famous “There is no place like home” line): there is no home for young Joe, let alone is older, homeless, self in the narrative of Looper: there is only forward, destructive momentum and the only unit of such prosperity (Emily Blunt’s tough-as-nails Sara and her son) might not even survive the open-ended future. Lives are reshaped and destroyed but one is left with an ominous feeling that all might be for naught. Because I’ve been told that, despite our best efforts, the universe will find ways of course-correcting…? Or is should it be simpler, more optimistic, than that?
To say that Looper has grown on me since I saw it Wednesday would be one of the understatements of the year. But that might just be my overextending brain investing too much into it. As someone who finds himself thinking a little bit too much about his future self, Looper resonates deeply and if it is able to do so, it is because Johnson’s allows it too, putting complex emotions and narrative clarity at the forefrunt of his picture. This a rare, wondrous sign of quality, whichever way you choose to look at this, and well worth the time. All the rest is glorious science-fiction icing.