After 2005’s impressive junior-high noir film Brick, a whimsical con-man caper The Brothers Bloom, and a couple of brawny episodes of AMC’s Breaking Bad, American indie filmmaker Rian Johnson is back with his most spellbinding film so far. With guns, off-the-cuff comedy, blossoming romance and complex time travel, Looper proves that Johnson is a talent with an exciting future.
We meet Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt), strutting around a squalid city dressed as someone from a 1960s cop show: leather threads, slicked hair, a sweet ride and a sawn-off shotgun called a blunderbuss. Even if the dodgy prosthetics may be initially jarring, Levitt arrives onscreen for the first time oozing leading man charisma.
Through an expository voiceover, Joe eases us in to this bewildering world. He is a hired gun known as a looper, a well-paid but precarious trade. Living in Kansas in the year 2044, time traveller is yet to be invented, but it has by mobsters 30 years hence. When they have someone they want to rub out, the wealthy criminals send their victims back in time to be ‘disposed of’ by men like him, with Jeff Daniels’ Abe as the overlord to the whole operation. It pays well, but there’s a catch – in order to “close the loop” and avoid detection in the future, every looper is eventually expected to kill their future self.
Joe is set on admitting his own defeat, but the future-Joe (played by an expectedly bad-ass Bruce Willis) has other ideas, managing to escape the murder scene and setting off a manhunt as mind-bending as it is action-packed. There’s even a humorous, meta-diegetic scene where Willis and Levitt sit across from each other and argue the fallibility of their predicament. It’s a nuanced take on the butterfly effect, with both Joe’s playing the hunter and the hunted simultaneously.
If you’ve heard anything about this film, it will be a variation of the plot outline above. It’s a great starting point, but Looper is not quite the Willis vs. Levitt face-off that the marketing would suggest. Not long after Willis’ escape, Emily Blunt pops up as Sara, a gun wielding, farm girl and overbearing mother to young Cid (spectacularly played by a film-stealing Pierce Gagnon). It would be perfunctory to explain how their arrival takes shape, but suffice to say Looper only gets more complex and multifaceted as the film zooms along at breakneck pace.
Newish talents like Blunt and Levitt giving career-defining performances, and oldies Willis and Daniels prove they still have the goods. But, with an ostensibly unoriginal story that riffs on The Matrix, The Terminator and 12 Monkeys, the biggest credit should go to Johnson and his crew for subverting the conventions of such genre pieces. First there’s production designer and ex-Spielberg collaborator Ed Verreaux who sculpts a landscape which never feels compromised by post-production CGI effects. Secondly, Steve Yedlin’s cinematography, which is both earthy and futuristically lavish. And who could forget Nathan Johnson’s beat laden electronic score that intensifies Looper’s most high octane moments, as well as it’s existential, contemplative beats.
A fantastically rich world, and a plethora of interesting characters, dynamics and themes. It’s a shame that this great material is limited to a two-hour running time. Hurriedly approaching the somewhat obvious closing moments of the movie, the material craves more time to flourish; perhaps better suited to a HBO miniseries than one film outing.
Filmed on a modest budget of $30 million, Rian Johnson makes the year’s finest blockbuster to date. Looper isn’t quite perfect, but it won’t be long before he delivers up a modern masterpiece.