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LOOPER
(***½)
Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Director/Writer:
Rian Johnson
Starring:
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt
Length:   118 minutes
Released:   092812
Rating:
R for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug content
“...daring, engrossing, and impeccably crafted, it's a triumph that transcends genre." 

There’s a sequence in “Looper” where a character warns that thinking about time travel can fry one’s brain like an egg. This warning might as well be meant for viewers, and heeding it is the key to allowing the film to work. Writer/director Rian Johnson realizes that dwelling on the inevitable paradoxes is a brain-melting exercise, and “Looper” is really no different since it hinges on similar mind-bending mechanics that don’t withstand logical scrutiny. Fortunately, none of this stuff really matters since “Looper” is compelling, cool, and completely riveting--quite simply, it just works because it’s a fantastic story that’s well-told without getting caught up in the wash of its sci-fi minutiae. Instead, “Looper” is concerned with broad strokes of character, drama, and theme all of which find a perfect marriage in the film’s high concept: in the far-flung future (about sixty years from now), time-travel exists but has been outlawed, employed only by the criminal underground who use it for mob hits. When they need to rid themselves of someone, they zap them back thirty years into the past, where specialized assassins called loopers dispense of them. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of these loopers and has been steadily building a nest egg of silver that he’ll eventually cash in towards his future. That future comes back to haunt him, though, when his older self (Bruce Willis) is sent back as his latest target, which is actually standard procedure in this business. By assassinating one’s older self, loopers “close their loop,” an act that essentially lets them off the hook to enjoy the next 30 years until they’re summoned for their own assassination. In this case, however, the older Joe refuses to go by the script, so his younger counterpart is forced to hunt himself down, all while avoiding his fellow assassins.

That’s the hook for “Looper,” but it’s just the first of many; time travel is an inherently fascinating concept, and Johnson dips below its surface intrigue to explore the ramifications of this scenario that only grows more captivating as the film moves ahead. While its momentum is relentless, the film’s story is methodical and thoughtful, expertly and economically sketched by Johnson. With so much plotting and mechanisms at work, “Looper” could easily spin its wheels, but Johnson doesn’t employ the gift of gab. Instead, he manages to expertly convey everything--from the “rules” of time-travel to thirty years’ worth of story--with a blistering visual brevity that reveals the touch of a natural storyteller. While the film’s setup is a mouthful, it’s actually just an appetizer--I’ve described perhaps a third of the plot, which eventually twists and turns into something that’s been completely hidden by the marketing. Rather than chronicling a manhunt, it settles into something a little more intimate and ruminative when younger Joe encounters a local farm girl (Emily Blunt) and her son (Pierce Gagnon), a meeting that’s hardly a chance encounter since the older Joe has come back in time with specific intentions to alter the future.

At its heart, “Looper” is ultimately “The Terminator” tilted on its head a bit; that film represents the grandfather of all time paradoxes, and “Looper” certainly can’t escape that, but, again, it’s hardly a concern as the film unfolds. The story is undeniably clever, but it’s not terribly cute about it; it tricks not by pulling the rug out from under viewers, but by simply staying a few steps ahead and allowing them to delight in its various directions and modes, none of which feel forced.

Instead, “Looper” is a remarkably organic experience, from the narrative to Johnson’s vision of the future, which is about two steps removed from our present. Situated in Kansas, this dystopia is somewhere between the urban grunge of “Blade Runner” and the eerie desolation of “Children of the Corn.” There are still cornfields and Midwest twang, with the futurist aspects (weaponry, drugs, etc.) acting mostly as flourishes. Like much of “Looper,” this production design is unassuming but effective, perhaps because it results in a world that is so reminiscent of our own--it’s filled not with gaudy technology or put-upon futurism but with compelling, resonant human beings whose motivations are wholly believable and fuel the film.
At the forefront is Gordon-Levitt, who gives a performance that sees him stop just short of wearing Bruce Willis’s skin in an attempt to become the elder actor. Refusing to allow the makeup and prosthetics carry the load ( and the makeup is a tad overdone. Sometimes to the point of distraction ), Gordon-Levitt adopts Willis’s vocal inflections and mannerisms to uncannily transform himself. The performance is no mere pantomime, though, as the younger Joe is a complicated, conflicted character, a junkie who seeks comfort in strippers and drugs. He’s also aware of his failings and is investing in his future because it’ll be his chance to hit the reset button on what has been a tumultuous life thus far.

Thanks to the time travel conceit, we’re privy to how it turns out for Joe, so the stakes are thoroughly grounded by the time the older Joe arrives on the scene. Since Gordon-Levitt completely gives himself over to the Willis persona, Willis himself can give a soft-spoken, forlorn Bruce Willis performance, one that’s driven by an understandable sense of tragedy and longing. Watching the two interact is fascinating, sort of like watching two halves refusing to form a whole, and the film’s true drama emerges as each character continues to shift in esteem; initially, the older Joe earns our empathy, whereas his impetuous counterpart is driven by selfishness. Even as Willis’s motives come into focus, the film is still awash in shades of grey. Johnson’s best trick is his refusal to relent to one-dimension, and the philosophical and moral implications that eventually arise are more absorbing than the time-travel business. Very few of the characters are definitively in the wrong, with each being driven by a natural instinct.

Brought to life by an impressive ensemble, the supporting cast is colorful. Blunt is the girl but not the girl, a tough, achingly maternal woman who arguably faces the most horrible revelation in the film, while Gagnon delivers an utterly convincing and layered performance as the ten year old son, the lynchpin character upon whom the film hinges. The “bad guys” are Joe’s fellow thugs; however, as a looper, he’s actually on the low end of the totem pole, as the more experienced and efficient gat-men come in to clean up messes. Heading the organization is Abe (Jeff Daniels), a guy sent back in time to ensure things go smoothly for his employer in the future. Operating with a subtle menace that’s alarmingly diffused by Daniels’s typically charming persona, Abe sometimes feels like the ultimate shit-kicker who’s inexplicably assumed a position of power. In his employ is a lapdog named Kid Blue (Noah Segan), a put-upon wannabe gangster whose attachment to his absurdly sized handgun speaks volumes.

There are other fine, small performances. Paul Dano is Joe’s cohort, and his inability to close his own loop is one of those perfect, economical storytelling choices that efficiently establishes how Johnson’s world works. Joe frequents a diner where he engages a waitress (Tracie Thoms) in small talk, while the film’s events also bring him into conflict with yet another looper (Garret Dillahunt) with a conflicted sense of honor and duty. Johnson’s attentiveness is most apparent when he finds so many humane, affecting moments--both verbal and nonverbal--between all of these characters; that “Looper” is so unbelievably cool isn’t much of a surprise, but it also manages resonate and absorb with emotional and intellectual depth, as Johnson arranges a rich menagerie of characters, most of them in pursuit of purely instinctual and individual pursuits in a dystopic world that seemingly thrives on such dissent and division.

As such, time travel is a natural fit to reveal how these individuals are unwittingly interlocking into a much larger sequence, and, for all of the future’s advances, the film comes down to good old fashioned empathy, sacrifice, regret, motherhood, nature, and nurture. The latter three are connected, naturally, and “Looper” has some thoughtful things to say about human nature and its psychology. Fittingly, the film provides a cyclical loop that examines tortured childhoods and their ability to impact the future on a small and large scale.

Don’t let me sell “Looper’s” cool factor short--it’s slick and stylish with well-cut, unique action sequences that solidify Johnson’s chops in that arena, and Willis does get a chance to channel John McClane here and there, but this is subversive action cinema that intentionally slows itself down to consider its characters. It’s also another knowing genre riff from Johnson; like “Brick” and “The Brothers Bloom” before it, it’s operating in a familiar realm and subtly reconfiguring it with a couple of unobtrusive nods--Blunt’s character is named Sara and is every bit as fierce as Linda Hamilton in “The Terminator”, and, at one point, Daniels complains that the entertainment of the time period is nothing but affectations of twentieth century fare.

The same can be said of Johnson’s output so far, but it’s hardly a criticism since he’s found a way to reinvigorate every genre he’s explored without reinventing their wheels. “Looper” is his most accomplished work to date: daring, engrossing, and impeccably crafted, it's a triumph that transcends genre.

LOOPER © 2013 TriStar Pictures
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2013 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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