I saw “Looper” with two of my housemates. Each of us went for a different reason: one wanted to see Bruce Willis kill people; the other wanted to see a good sci-fi movie; I just wanted to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I don’t know if we all got what we wanted, but none of us were expecting what we got.
Set primarily in 2044, “Looper” throws us into a dystopian, trashed-out future of the U.S.—Kansas to be exact, but Dorothy and Toto are nowhere to be seen in this land where the mob rules the roost, the homeless strew the streets, and no end is in sight. Thirty years into the future, time travel has been invented but immediately outlawed, used only by criminal organizations to send people they want eliminated into the past to be blasted out of existence by “loopers,” specialized assassins paid with silver bars strapped to their targets. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in a role written and named for him) is one of these loopers, a young man willing to kill for a living but who also spends his spare time learning French so that he can someday escape to la belle France. Apart from the killing, which doesn’t seem to bother Joe too much, his lifestyle seems ideal—lucrative, simple, and with lots of time for drugs, drinks, and women. The only problem is that it doesn’t last forever. Eventually, all loopers “close their loop,” executing their future selves, receiving a hefty sum, and living out the next thirty years until they are blasted into the past to complete the circle.
Most loopers close their loop without a problem, but Joe hesitates just long enough for his future self (Bruce Willis) to escape. Chasing after Old Joe, who has his own agenda for the past, brings Young Joe into the lives of Sara (a powerful Emily Blunt) and her son, Cid. There’s something a little strange about this little boy, played to chilling perfection by newcomer Pierce Gagnon, that drives the second half of the movie. One of the striking things about “Looper” is how different the two halves of the film are, a connection director Rian Johnson pulls together so seamlessly that we simply bound forward with the two Joes without thinking much about how we got to that point.
Chase film at its most thrilling, dystopic nightmare at its darkest, and family drama at its most moving, “Looper” is at its heart a story about evil: how it is born, how it grows, how it can be saved. It is also a story about love, the love of a man for his wife, a mother for her child, and a man for his world. What holds these disparate elements together in a potentially messy premise is simply the excellence of the cast. The movie hinges on the believability that Gordon-Levitt and Willis are the same man, and the two somehow manage to maintain their separate identities and yet convince us of their oneness. Johnson knows his actors well, playing to each of their strengths: Willis satisfies the “Die Hard” fan with his killing rampage, and Gordon-Levitt puts in another manifestation of his cool but sensitive screen persona. Each is driven by his own desires, but it’s easy to see how young Joe became the old. And yet, therein lies the rub; since young Joe has not yet become the old, time can still be rewritten. Young Joe can still choose the path he wants to take, the man he wants to become.
Instead of trusting his actors to bring their connection to life, however, Johnson buries Gordon-Levitt’s face in unnecessary prosthetics to make him look like Willis. The greatest mistake of the movie, this decision not only disappoints many-a-JGL-fan in the audience, but it more importantly distracts and detracts from the movie. Keeping up with sci-fi mumbo jumbo about time travel is difficult enough already without trying to figure out what exactly happened to Gordon-Levitt’s face, which is what we inevitably do no matter how mentally prepared we were for the deformation. No one changed the faces of Saoirse Ronan and Romola Garai to look like that of Vanessa Redgrave in “Atonement,” but we all still believed they were the same woman at different ages. That Johnson did nothing to either Adrien Brody or Mark Ruffalo, the title characters of his previous film, “The Brothers Bloom,” leaves his uncanny, disconcerting cosmetic alterations in “Looper” all the more puzzling.
This error aside, Johnson’s third feature is a bold, well-crafted piece that takes the creativity, wit, and thrill of his debut film, indie darling “Brick,” (also starring Gordon-Levitt) to the big leagues. One harrowing scene alone, in which we see the fate of loopers that do not close their loop, should be enough to establish Johnson as one of the most promising up-and-coming directors today. Not only is his vision audacious and smart, blending Christopher Nolan’s temporal complexities with a serving of Philip K. Dick and a splash of Tarantino, but he grounds “Looper” in humanity’s deepest and darkest questions: To whom does life belong, the present or the future? What is innocence? What would a mother do to save her child? What would a man do to save his future?
Now playing in theaters
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars