Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Looper


Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels, Pierce Gagnon
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

It's customary when talking about a time travel movie to bring up as many previous time travel movies as possible that the film you're reviewing was influenced or inspired by. But no such references need to be made when discussing Rian Johnson's completely original, one-of-a-kind Looper, the new benchmark subsequent entries in the genre will be trying to copy in the years ahead. It's no secret that I've been looking forward to this more than anything else released in the past year, and because of the talent involved and the genre it falls in, I'd be lying if I said it didn't have shorter distance to travel in receiving high praise. But at the end of the day it still had to deliver and nothing could have prepared me for how it did. Nearly the entire first hour had me wondering how anyone could come up with an idea like this, much less be able to execute on it. The second, more methodical hour is spent trying to figure out the puzzle of how it will develop and eventually end. And there wasn't a minute of either where I wasn't on the edge of my seat.  More amazingly, Johnson does this without necessarily having to concern himself, the characters or audiences with the intricacies or complications of the plot. Never before has such a high concept been presented so smoothly, allowing us to quickly get to the meat of the story, which is a dark morality struggle between two men who are exactly the same person in every way but age, yet also entirely different. It's all set against the backdrop of a future that looks and feels so alarmingly authentic it's downright scary. All the other movies released this year, sci-fi or otherwise, can be shown the door. It's that good and relentless, with expert writing, directing and acting carrying it straight through to a  brilliantly realized conclusion. 

The year is 2044 and America's economy is in collapse as the organized crime rate soars. Thirty years later in 2074, time travel will be invented, but not legalized, only available on the black market for crooks looking to dispose of bodies since tracking technology has made it impossible. They send the intended target back in time to 2044, where someone called a "looper" is waiting, blunderbuss in hand, to kill them and collect their silver payout. But a looper's services must eventually be terminated and when that day comes they're sent back to be killed by their past self. It's referred to as "closing the loop" and failing to do, or even hesitating, could hold disastrous consequences for both. Such is the case for Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) a skilled, but drug addicted looper in Kansas who's working for Abe (Jeff Daniels), a kingpin sent from the future to oversee operations.When his friend Seth (Paul Dano) fails to close his own loop he gives Joe some disturbing news from the future, just as as he's looking forward to a comfy thirty year retirement. There's just one thing left for him to do: Kill his future self so he can close his loop and cash out. But Future Joe (Bruce Willis) isn't about to to make it easy for him as a cat-and-mouse game unfolds between the two, with the crime syndicate hunting them both. Caught in the middle is a young mother named Sara (Emily Blunt) and her little boy Cid (Pierce Gagnon), who may be more important to the future than they know.

Just about the only concern I had going into this was the decision to have JGL wear facial prosthetics to more closely resemble a younger version of Bruce Willis. Scenes from the trailers and commercials did little to alleviate those worries, as it appeared out of context to be distracting, given that the two actors could never closely resemble one another no matter how much make-up work is done. What I didn't count on when the film got underway was how little this issue would matter. There's nothing to say other than you just completely forget about it and accept without thinking that these two men are present and future versions of the same person. That's only partially due to the make-up, as the praise should primarily go to Johnson and his two leads for never letting us doubt for a second that these two are the same person. It also helps that they're not. Each have completely different goals and personalities, as they should since they've been forced into a situation where they're sworn enemies.

Surprisingly, Willis doesn't show up until a good 40 minutes into the picture, but when he does Johnson has all the cards lined up so we accept him in the role immediately and without question. In probably the film's most thrilling sequence, we see a montage depicting the evolution from Young Joe into Old Joe and the events that eventually send him back to meet his younger self. It could have been such a mess but Johnson gets it done in under 10 minutes, visually mapping it all out with no dialogue. But the real turning point comes when the two Joes come face to face with each another during a diner conversation. There's almost a father-son dynamic at work between them, as the older, more experienced Joe tries to lecture his younger counterpart, who he sees as really just a young punk who hasn't lived yet. Unfortunately, Old Joe's clock is running out and the only person truly in control of his destiny is sitting across the table from him. From that point on everything you think you thought this movie was going to be gets completely turned on its head as this whole thing ends up being much bigger than both of them.

Johnson takes a huge risk in the second half of the picture, taking a story that started as one thing and turning into something else by bravely shifting the narrative's focus. In that sense, the real star of Looper ends up being the unusual structure with the entire last hour essentially taking place entirely on a farmhouse.  It really does almost feel like two different movies, but in the best way possible way, with each half answering the film's mysteries. Without spoiling too much, most of it focuses on this mother and the child she must protect when Young Joe arrives on her farm. What she has to protect him from and how she has to do it should be enough to make viewers' brains explode, yet Johnson somehow makes it completely comprehensible. It's complicated, heady stuff that shouldn't necessarily be easy to follow but strangely not a minute goes by where we don't know what's happening or feel lost. Not nearly enough praise is being heaped on JGL who accomplishes the impossible in believably pulling off a young Bruce Willis. While it's tempting to single out the voice inflection and imitative aspects of the performance (and they are spot-on), his biggest acting coup is guiding us through Joe's journey without us even noticing them. It's very much Young Joe's story as he must give up his hedonistic ways to step up and take responsibility for not just his actions, but his future self's. 

For Willis, this is basically the most functional supporting role he's ever had and his China montage scenes, as well as those opposite JGL in the diner, easily ranks amongst his most exciting work. Old Joe is a man on a mission and the unrelentingly dark places that mission ends up taking him are surprising, even to him. But the entire second half of the movie belongs to a revelatory Emily Blunt and 5 year-old Pierce Gagnon, who gives a child performance that has to be seen to be believed, and even then, you still might not believe it. Blunt's role as Sara is shrouded in secrecy from the start. We're not sure what her purpose is or how large or important the part will be and the thrill is in witnessing how she answers those questions as the film heads into the final stretch. It's such a tricky, complex part and she just kills it, conveying the desperation and sadness of this woman trying to trying to protect a child who's unusually difficult to protect. And I'm still not sure how Johnson got a performance like this out of this kid, who's unsettling work here deserves to join the pantheon of great creepy child performances. We've seen this type of role before and it's a story element we're familiar with yet it feels completely fresh and terrifying with the emotion Gagnon brings to table. Reunited with his Lookout co-star, a bearded Jeff Daniels is given a rare villainous role and his scenes as crime lord Abe crackle with intensity precisely because he subtly and quietly plays him counter to what we'd expect. Dano and Noah Egan each ooze a pathetic desperation and incompetence as Joe's fellow loopers while Piper Perabo keeps the oldest profession alive in the future with her role as his hooker girlfriend Suzie, who's basically a symbol of the life he's about to leave behind.

This isn't  one of those action movies with some sci-fi thrown in. It's hard science fiction with big ideas, containing a concept is so original that it's hard to believe it wasn't adapted from a short story in some lost classic sci-fi novel by Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick (despite neither having their works adapted into a screenplay this innovative). The clues were there that Rian Johnson was more than capable of creating an entire universe from scratch with Brick and The Brothers Bloom but even the incredible promise displayed in his first two efforts couldn't have forecast he was capable of something like this, his darkest film yet. This dystopian future is one we've never seen before, avoiding falling into the trap of so many other filmmakers who misstep by trying to depict a society that's too "futuristic" or has little relevance to our present. He wisely doesn't go too far, crafting a world that feels both retro and contemporary at the same time, yet also one with an unmistakable look and feel that seems unlikely to be laughed at when the film is revisited years down the line. It's far enough from our present to see it's the future, yet not removed enough to see aspects still linger. The glimpses we get of it, in conception, production, set and costume design are not only wondrous to witness, but frighteningly credible when taken on their own terms. This is obviously is a major achievement on every creative level imaginable, but what's most impressive is how Johnson spins such a complicated story with such a clear, concise precision. As it head into the final act, I ran what seemed like five to ten scenarios through my head as to how it could end. Of course all were wrong. Looper saves its best trick for last, somehow still finding a way to close its own loop.               

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