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At The Picture Show
September 2012


Circle of life and death

Rian Johnson expertly navigates the juicy paradoxes of time travel in the heady, thrilling 'Looper'

TriStar Pictures
Director: Rian Johnson
Screenplay: Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Pierce Gagnon, Paul Dano, Piper Perabo and Garret Dillahunt
Rated R / 1 hour, 58 minutes
Opened September 28, 2012
(out of four)

"I don't want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it, then we're gonna be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws."

This is the correct approach to making a movie about time travel. Basically: Don't dwell on it. The line is spoken by a man who's just been sent 30 years back in time to be killed, and is now staring face to face with his would-be assassin, who just so happens to be a younger version of himself. But it's also writer/director Rian Johnson's tongue-in-cheek comment on the concept itself - and a pre-emptive response to any nitpicking and deconstruction of Looper's internal logic (the inevitable byproduct of any time-travel movie).

What a joy it is to see someone of Johnson's talents take on that challenge. And like any good filmmaker, he rises to it. Instead of avoiding the issue, he toys with causation and the laws of physics, using those paradoxes to his advantage. The resulting film is intelligent and beguiling precisely because Johnson knows how to play with the possibilities inherent to time travel as a storytelling device.

This is not a surprise for anyone who has followed his career. He proved himself a master of genre in his brilliant debut, Brick, a high-school detective story that boasted a rare command of the ins and outs of film noir, revitalizing the genre in the process. He did the same with con artist/heist movies in 2009's criminally underseen The Brothers Bloom. And now he's added another notch to his belt.

Science fiction and film noir have often made magnificent bedfellows, and that's exactly the concoction Johnson came up with for Looper, which follows in the footsteps of such films as Minority Report, Dark City, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Gattaca, Alphaville and many more, both seen and unseen by me. In any case, the two genres make for a rich combination, and Johnson knows how to get the best out of both.

He begins with the premise that, by the year 2074, time travel has been invented, but is so severely illegal that it can only be pulled off in secret. Criminal syndicates (and, most likely, corporate conglomerates) use it, but by necessity they're careful. In fact, they take full advantage of the process by using it to cover up the very crime(s) they're committing. Need a man killed? Send him back 30 years in time and have him killed there. Clean as can be.

Those who carry out the jobs are called "loopers." Armed with an unwieldy, but powerful and messy futuristic shotgun called the "blunderbuss," loopers seem to be a collection of lost boys (mostly), half-hipster, half-small time hood, careless in their ambition and short-sighted with their fate. So short-sighted, in fact, that their employer is able to convince most of them, after a few years, to conclude their employment in the most absolute way possible. Their future selves (30 years out) get sent back in time and the younger selves kill them(selves), thus "closing the loop." The company is in the clear and the looper has 30 years of free time on his hands. (In essence, their entire lives could be construed as an extended act of suicide - by way of homicide - an intriguing idea in and of itself.)

One such looper is Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in a terrific, reserved, angry performance), one of the few forward-thinking members in an industry of dead-enders. He's saving half his payment (which in 2044 comes in the form of silver bars) in order to "retire" overseas. But word starts to leak of a mysterious (and unseen) figure known as "The Rainmaker," a fixture of 2074 who has taken it upon himself to close all the loops, much to the chagrin of Joe, his fellow hitmen and their boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels), a transplanted middleman from the future who controls the loopers' day-to-day operations. Sure enough, Joe eventually finds himself face to face with his older self (Bruce Willis), momentarily stunning him just long enough for the old man to get away.

And so it begins. But what seems like a chase movie with its own central paradoxical conflict - a young man tasked with killing his older self - evolves into something much deeper, particularly once we get to the Kansas farm where much of the action takes place, and where we get to know Sara (Emily Blunt) and her young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon). (The role we expect both to play in the storyline is addressed almost immediately when we meet them, but Johnson winds up twisting all that on its head. I'll just leave it at that.)

There is a certain poignance to Old Joe's own story, which we see dramatized in an exceptional montage showing the transition from his wandering 20s to the contentment of middle age. Just look at the economy of Johnson's shots during this sequence, the way he presents Joe's emotional and psychological journey in a building series of moments and memory snapshots spanning three decades.

We see that poetic command of cinematic language throughout Looper - from the classical simplicity of particular shots mirroring one another, to the specific way Johnson will cut away from an intense moment only to return a few shots later in the aftermath of that moment (a strangely resonant approach to action, and one he employs in a couple of key scenes).

But what may be most impressive is the directions Johnson takes his concepts. I suppose anyone could come up with the basic younger self/older self idea, but how many would take it further by showing us a man (no, not Joe) whose body literally crumbles and falls apart as his younger self gets mutilated piece by piece (a staggering and revolting and darkly hilarious sequence)? The way the film exploits the connection between multiple versions of the same person is one of its most tantalizing aspects. Consider the way memories change - the way bodies change - depending on the actions of a younger version of one character. We'll see two versions of a character, one of which is directly, moment-to-moment, affecting the fate of the other. Altering (or adding to, or confusing, or conflating) his memories, scarring his body.

Johnson allows himself wiggle room (some movies box themselves into a corner, which can be its own fun challenge, but more often than not ends up getting a movie into trouble) but remains focused on really unraveling the implications of the story he's telling, and discovering a lot about his characters in the process. Simply by deciding to make a time-travel film, he inherited a litany of paradoxes and question marks; he turns virtually all of those to his advantage, crafting a moody, intelligent, character-centric noir wrapped inside a dystopian thriller.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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