Monday, October 1, 2012
Enter Rian Johnson.
Looper is only Johnson's third feature film (the other two being Brick and The Brothers Bloom), but as an exercise in originality it's quite impressive. The story follows Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a contract killer known as a "looper." The film explains early on that apparently it's incredibly difficult to dispose of a body in the future so criminal organizations send the people they need to disappear back to the past where they are executed and disposed of by the aforementioned loopers. In the event that a looper lives long enough to become a liability for the companies that employ them, the loopers are sent back to the past and disposed of by younger versions of themselves - an event referred to as "closing the loop." Such a moment is the flashpoint for much of the action when an older Joe (Bruce Willis) is sent back to be killed by his younger self. But as you can imagine, things aren't quite so cut and dry in the world of the film...
Rian Johnson is a real up-n-comer. In addition to his relatively small filmography, he also directed the "Fly" episode of Breaking Bad and his signature style is readily notable across his body of work. But where Brick ironically played up noir elements in a high school setting and The Brothers Bloom was more of a surreal dramedy, Looper is a profoundly gritty and intense motion picture.
Johnson's direction is superb; he weaves his own signature shot composition in amongst a myriad of textbook cinematography. He wonderfully balances his own penchant for kinetic camerawork with traditional photography and the result leaves Looper in a perfect harmony. As an extension of his directorial style, the future of Looper is a marvelous construction of the inventive and the familiar. I hesitate to use the term realistic, but an orchestra of small details give us windows into the world. Solar panels on cars imply the implementation of solar power, though it's never directly addressed. Hover bikes are available, but obscenely expensive and cumbersome. Another subplot within the film involves how a genetic mutation gave a small percentage of the population minor telekenetic abilities. But the film cynically notes through Joe's narration that while the world expected a new breed of superheroes, it ended up with "a bunch of assholes who think they're blowing your mind by floating quarters."
As I hinted at before, Looper is much more intense than you might expect, and this is both a bit of a pro and a bit of a con. What I liked about Looper's intensity was its visceral violence, and how that violence is staged. It gets pretty gory in a few places, but personally I enjoyed some of these moments. A shockingly vibrant moment involves a minor character exploding in slow motion. Plumes of red erupt from his chest and back as his body is torn apart by a subplot I won't spoil by mentioning here.
Picking right back up with how intense this movie is, I obviously don't object to violence generally speaking. In most cases, I enjoy it from a cinematic perspective. But there is one moment in particular that kinda crosses the line. If you care to know what I'm talking about, the italicized text below explains:
As part of his mission to escape his fate, old Joe is forced to hunt down a character known in the future as "The Rainmaker" - an enigmatic crime lord who is systematically and for as-yet-unknown reasons closing all the loops. Since Joe is trying to stop the Rainmaker in the past, his potential targets and suspicions are still children. In a necessary (for the purposes of the narrative) scene, old Joe kills one of these kids. It happens offscreen, and the scene is staged in such a way as to play down the horror as much as possible - but it still happens. I'm still not o.k. with that moment in the film on its own merits, though I see why it has to happen within the context of the film and for the purposes of further building narrative tension. But word to the wise, you might find your opinion of this film overall hinges on whether or not you find that scene just too much to handle.
There really isn't much here beyond what I mentioned above and any subjective objections you might have to the movie on general principle. So if you don't care for time travel movies, you probably won't enjoy Looper all that much.
Looper is a confidently unique and genuine work of cinematic spectacle. It's a bit early to tell if Rian Johnson has earned himself a nickname like "the new Christopher Nolan" or "Tarantino the Second." But he's well on his way to carving out a niche of "Rian Johnson movies" that are unmistakably his own and unmistakably well-crafted.
Apart from Johnson's direction, the film itself is really engaging and entertaining. As a time-travel movie, it doesn't dawdle particularly long in exposition. We aren't made intimately familiar with just exactly how the time travel in the film works - but we don't need to be. The film even makes a kind of meta-comment about the topic when young Joe asks old Joe if he doesn't already know how it all ends. Old Joe fires back with a comment about how if they started talking about how he can be in the same place in two places in time they'd be there all day. They even hint at one point that time travel invariably leads to insanity for the time traveler. Good enough for me. Time travel is just the vehicle the film uses to orchestrate its collection of philosophical questions, offering the viewer ample opportunity to consider what they might do in a similar situation or how far they'd go to protect someone they love.
Looper is absolutely an action movie, but it's more of a thinker than its trailers imply. Rian Johnson has crafted a truly unique film that's consistent and engaging throughout, and he's managed to employ time travel doing so. That alone might have been enough cause to laud Looper, but layered on top of that are a host of other reasons from the visual effects, to the casting and acting, to its cinematography and everything in between. The film is definitely much grittier and much more intense than I expected, certainly more so Johnson's preceding work. But looking back at just how brilliant Mr. Johnson's little collection of films has been thus far, I'm thrilled to see what he's going to do next.