There’s not a single other genre of film that I have more of a love/hate relationship with than time-travel stories. I’m a sciencey kind of guy, so the concept of time travel greatly appeals to me. But also because I’m a sciencey kind of guy, my natural inclination is to try and figure out the engineering and logic behind how it’s used in a movie, and most times that ends with my grey squishy bits leaking out my face-holes.
Looper is no exception – lets just get that out of the way – but it goes about it’s brain breaking business so cleverly that you don’t really mind.
The brainchild of writer-director Rian Johnson, Looper tells the story of Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) a special kind of hitman in the year 2044. Thirty years from then time travel will be invented, but due to the potential chaos it can cause, it will almost immediately be outlawed. Which of course means that only the outlaws use it.
You see, in 2074, getting rid of a dead body is nigh impossible thanks to sophisticated tracking techniques, so enterprising gangsters simply zap their “problems” back to 2044, where hitmen like Joe are waiting to introduce them to the business end of a blunderbuss the very instant they show up.
It’s a tidy setup, with the only loose end being the hitman, because if he lives until 2074, he could potentially rat out the gangsters. So to prevent that from happening, the younger hitman has to “close the loop” by taking out his future, 30 year older self, and for this chrono-suicide, the young “looper” gets rewarded with riches enough to ensure that he can live it up for the next 30 years until he meets his eventual end.
But when Joe’s older self (Bruce Willis) shows up unexpectedly at the killing spot, and due to a moment of hesitation, manages to get the jump on his younger counterpart and escape, young Joe has to embark on a manhunt for his older self to try and make amends to his bosses. But older Joe has come back with a mission of his own that may just change the world.
It’s an intriguing and highly original premise, that throws out a list of things to wrap your head around, including that old chestnut of “If you could go back in time and kill Hitler as a baby, would you?”.
Now lets just change gears here, and immediately address the middle-aged and balding elephant in the room: Joseph Gordon-Levitt obviously looks nothing like Bruce Willis. But thanks to some great makeup work and spending hours and hours of studying video clips on Willis, Gordon-Levitt is able to pull off a strong performance which may not mimic what we know a 30-years younger version of Willis looked like, but through mainly mannerisms and speech patterns it strongly suggests that this brash young man could potentially become the more matured Joe.
If you were to shine a spotlight on it, you’d probably find plenty to gripe about (like Gordon-Levitt’s lack of Willis’ trademark puckered mouth) but Johnson just expects you to buy it and go along for the rather thrilling ride.
Similarly, the time travel mechanics employed are not laid out neatly in bullet point form for the techno-geeks to slobber over, but rather a particular approach is taken and you either just accept it or don’t, but trying to understand all the intricacies will just leave you with brain on your shoes. It does help though that the way Johnson has approached the time travel, makes for some wildly memorable visuals as events in the past rewrite situations in the future.
Speaking of memorable visuals, during the Hunt of the Joes they cross paths with Sara (Emily Blunt) and her young charge Cid (Pierce Gagnon), both of whom play an integral role in the story that I won’t spoil here. What is worth mentioning though, is Blunt’s surprisingly out-of-character turn – complete with a rather capable American twang - as the shotgun wielding and axe swinging Kansas farm-owner with a mysterious past. It’s a definite departure from her usual fare, but she sells it well and holds her own against Gordon-Levitt and Willis, the latter of which turns in one of his best performances in years, as the older Joe’s moral compass gets gyrated wildly while h attempts to complete his mission.
But for all three the film’s main protagonists’ sterling efforts, it’s 7-year old Pierce Gagnon that truly steals the show. At times creepy, at times disarmingly mature, the relative newcomer shows a depth of character and level of charisma that actors three times his age would kill for. This little boy is one to keep an eye on.
But all these great performances would be for naught if they didn’t have a suitable backdrop to play out against, and Johnson truly delivers here. Showing an almost obsessive attention to detail, he builds up this living, breathing future world, filled with retrofitted mergings of old and new technologies. And this anachronistic juxtapositioning is taken to it’s artistic extreme as cinematographer Steve Yedlin captures these stark and arresting shots of rural Kansas, cornfields and all, interspersed with hoverbikes, robot crop dusters and rather large future guns.
This contrasting visual motif also combines well with Nathan (younger brother to Rian) Johnson’s digitally infused, slightly off-kilter score. The result is a film that doesn’t quite play out as the high-octane action film some might have expected, but instead lays out a much richer tapestry of sight and sound than just your usual blockbuster contingent of explosions and foghorns.
That’s not to say that you won’t get any explodey bits though, because in between all that gawking at the scenery, you’ll certainly be faced with some vicious and visceral action sequences that will leave your buttcheeks clawing at the edge of your seat.
Looper may end up going into a different direction than you might have expected it to, but it’s a detour that is welcomed happily. Mature, meticulously shot and strongly acted sci-fi thrillers that require audiences to actually pull their brain out of neutral is far too rare these days.
After his previous two films, Brick (which also starred Gordon-Levitt) and The Brothers Bloom, were criminally underwatched, this will be a name-making endeavour for Rian Johnson, and I can’t wait to see what he tackles next.