Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review: "Looper"

"Looper" starts out with an audacious and novel premise, develops it in a logical and satisfying manner, and then sort of spins sideways with it.

For awhile I worried I was witnessing a non-comedy version of "Funny People," another film that started out bold and promising, and then we watched it slowly and painfully slide off a cliff with an extended visit to the main character's ex-girlfriend's house.

Something quite similar happens here, as about an hour into the story Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finds himself on a lonely farm where he encounters a sullen young boy named Cid (Pierce Gagnon) and his hard-bitten, protective mother, Sara (Emily Blunt). Joe is a looper, an assassin who kills victims who have been sent back in time by mysterious criminal syndicates 30 years into the future.

His misadventures have brought him to this farmhouse, and at first I thought this encounter was merely a diversion in a harrowing journey in which Joe tries to solve a vexing time-travel puzzle. But it turns out this farm is not the story's way station but its destination, and everything else that transpires is centered on Cid and Sara.

I felt like the movie had lost me, as the dynamic involving these three characters comes to dominate the tale, which had been focused on the dynamic between Joe and another important character (more on that in a minute).

But eventually writer/director Rian Johnson brings things all together. The ending is not entirely unexpected, but as we sit and ponder it we realize no other finale would have made sense.

"Looper" is a challenging film, grandly ambitious and demanding of its audience. This means Johnson treats them with intelligence, but also that he knows he will leave some percentage of them scratching their heads when it's over.

Johnson relies on inference and suggestion rather than just showing you the tease and then the payoff. For example, at one point when Cid is throwing a temper tantrum, Sara runs out of the room and into her closet, where she has a massive thick steel safe embedded. She climbs into it and closes the door, and we get the distinct impression this ritual has been performed many times before. What possible reason could she have for this strange behavior? Eventually we learn, but it's not a quick or obvious deduction.

As assassins go, loopers are not the highly-trained and sophisticated killers we usually see in movies. In fact, they ply their trade in a rather sad and boring way. They are told when to show up in a deserted place, with a crude shotgun called a blunderbuss trained on a certain spot covered by a tarp. The victim appears there, already bound and gagged and helpless, and the looper blows them away. Their payment, in neatly-ordered bars of silver, is even conveniently strapped to the soon-to-be-dead guy's back. Basically, they just pull a trigger and dump the body.

Like many of his fellow loopers, Joe is living the high life in a dystopian future that they know for certain is bookended, at least for them. He wears fancy clothes and does designer drugs ("drops" that you put in your eyes) and drives a flashy red sports car -- all things that most people can't do in 2044 Kansas City. Most of the population are vagrants who live on the streets.

Without it ever explicitly being stated, it seems clear something horrendous has happened between now and 2044 -- even more so than between that time and the future from where looper victims are sent.

Technology seems to have gotten churned up, with communications no further advanced than today. Cars are still around, seemingly the very same ones from 2012 that have been retrofitted with solar panels and alternative fuel lines. The criminals carry one of two types of weapons, powerful blunderbusses like Joe or enormous revolvers called "gats." They favor long coats and mid-20th century ties and apparel, and it seems like the mid-21st century is a crude amalgam of the cultural leftovers of the two previous centuries.

Loopers know their career, and their lives, are finite because one day the victim that shows up will be themselves, 30 years older. They get a big payoff -- gold bars instead of silver -- and forced retirement, knowing they have three decades to live and plenty of money to live high while doing it. This is called "closing your loop."

Unfortunately for Joe, his loop (played by Bruce Willis) has obviously spent his time preparing for this day. Old Joe easily overpowers young Joe, which puts them both on the run. Young Joe is desperate to kill his "loop" and get back in the good graces of Abe (Jeff Daniels), the boss man who was sent back from the future to oversee the loopers. Old Joe keeps making overtures to young Joe to try to convince him there are bigger forces at work here, a mission that will eventually lead them all back to that farm.

Gordon-Levitt wears special prosthetics and contact lenses in an attempt to make him more physically resemble Willis. The effect is arresting but not entirely successful. He doesn't so much look like a young Bruce Willis as a young third person unrelated to either of them. For example, they give Gordon-Levitt thick, arching eyebrows that Willis has never possessed.

The relationship between the two Joes should be the fulcrum of the story, and for a time it is. Johnson shows us flash-forward sequences of what happens to Joe in the intervening 30 years, and why Old Joe is doing what he does. He has very good reasons and is torn up inside about what he feels he has to do, but that doesn't keep it from being terrible, dirty deeds.

Other story elements flitter around the edges. There's a new syndicate boss in the future referred to only as The Rainmaker who becomes important without ever being seen. There are also genetic mutations that about 10 percent of the population has allowing them to do very minor telekinesis.

One brilliant story element is that the future is not set, so once the two loopers exist in the same time zone, freaky-deaky things can transpire. For example, anything that happens to the young looper becomes a part of the older looper's persona -- instantly altering their memory and even their body. In a horrifying early sequence, a friend of Joe's (Paul Dano) lets his loop get away. Then we witness some truly terrifying things happen to the older man, which is how we know what is happening to his younger version.

Joe, a sharp cookie, uses this knowledge to his advantage when his own loop is on the run, finding a way to communicate with him that is both inspired and depraved.

I don't mind saying that "Looper" has been one of the films I've most been looking forward to this year. I experienced a small tinge of disappointment because I didn't come out of it with an immediate rush of satisfaction, and the movie didn't have as much emotional punch as I would've hoped. Joe's story is a compelling one, but it feels like we're observing it rather than being engaged in it.

But I think this is the sort of film that bears repeated viewings to fully understand and embrace its complexities. I'm reminded of Steven Spielberg's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence," a movie that demands our respect more than our adoration. I give "Looper" for its boldness -- this is way, way more than a standard sci-fi/action flick.

3 stars out of four

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