Friday, October 19, 2012

In Theaters: Looper

Looper poster

Looper is one of the great surprises of the fall movie season, a picture that without much buildup emerges as a minor sci-fi classic. Time travel stories can be complicated affairs, and you risk losing even the attentive viewer among the contrivances needed to make the plot work. Writer-director Rian Johnson isn't averse to the fancy stuff, but he knows how to present it, and he manages to make it the background for a touching, character-driven story, surrounded by a smart and efficient action thriller.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Joe, a hitman in a run-down near future, performing executions and disposals for a mob 30 years ahead of him; in that period, time travel exists but is illegal, and the mob uses it because it's too hard to dispose of corpses in their present. Every "looper" who does this job is expected to eventually close themselves out- their future self will be sent back and they have to execute them, and then take 30 years to prepare themselves for the end. A lot of loops are being closed lately, and when Joe finally confronts his older self (Bruce Willis), the old Joe manages to escape. The Joe of the present wants to close his loop, if only to avoid what the mob in the present will do to him to make his future self surrender, but old Joe isn't just out to save himself- his wife (Summer Qing) was killed in the future, and he wants to stop that happening by making sure the man who ordered him dead, a mysterious figure known only as "the Rainmaker", dies before coming to power.

This would be a fine setup for a gunplay-heavy action movie, and that is partly what Looper is. But Johnson can't help but explore the premise beyond the confines of the genre structure, and the film takes a dramatic turn when present-Joe stumbles upon a farm that happens to be on future-Joe's hit list. Emily Blunt plays Sara, the farm's owner, a single mom with a troubled past. When she and her son are introduced it feels briefly like the picture is losing momentum, when it's actually casually slipping into a lower, more cerebral gear. The story still has quite a few surprises to throw at us at this point, and the change of pace allows the story to breathe and find definition instead of rushing to a stock conclusion.

This is still at least partly an action movie, though, and Johnson's emphasis on character doesn't mean we don't get some scenes of both Levitt and Willis fighting both each other and a horde of mobsters. I think it's fair to say we're safely out of the woods when it comes to the unfortunate "nothing but shakycam" phase of action films; Looper's gunfights are cleanly shot and nicely staged. (The multiple perspectives of the story allow for some interesting set-ups as well, as some sequences are restaged from different angles to reveal either more information or simply play with a different tone.) The film's low budget doesn't prevent it from showing a convincing rendition of a run-down future, and a neat  bit of makeup trickery has been employed to make Levitt resemble his older self.

We end up delving into some heady concepts about fate and predestination in this film, and our sympathies are allowed to slide. Old Joe has lost a lot, and we understand his desire both to save his own life and prevent whatever horror is taking place in the future; however, doing so ultimately comes down to being willing to kill children, a clear indicator that this may be the wrong way to go. Willis rarely gets to play a character who could cross such a line, and it's too his credit that he doesn't instantly switch to playing a villain. (Acting-wise, kudos must also be given to Jeff Daniels as a bored handler of assassins and to Garrett Dillahunt as a fellow killer.) Some of it comes down to the old question, "Could you kill Hitler when he was a child," though maybe that question is more common in my circles than others. There are also elements of nature against nurture, and of people being trapped in ever repeating patterns.

Looper offers a lot to think about, and does so in a way that is neither pretentious nor facile; it's designed to last in the memory a little, to have people talking as they come out. While the actual mechanics of time travel are left purposefully fuzzy, the movie emphasizes the parts we need to know about, and feels consistent. The results wrap together a good sci-fi story, some killer action, and strong thematic material. It's a really solid, substantial piece of entertainment that I think is going to stand up very well in years to come.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson

Grade: A

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