September 28, 2012



LOOPER:  Worth A Ticket – Maybe Too Enthralling For Its Own Good


Rian Johnson’s most salient trait as a filmmaker may be a tendency to get carried away.  His first film, Brick, was a high school film noir so shrouded in mock-tough guy dialogue and exhaustively detailed mood that it forgot to tell a compelling story.  The Brothers Bloom fell in love with the concept of con games and plot reversals, until a viewer couldn’t believe or care about anything taking place on screen, because it would likely be revealed as a trick a few minutes later.  His new LOOPER is his most accessible project yet, but it’s still tangled in genres, influences and references.

Looper is fundamentally a time-travel story, which as the film’s dialogue itself notes (Johnson is nothing if not self-aware–he could write a hell of an episode of Community) carries plenty of time-space continuum complications of its own.  Johnson works very hard to play within the rules.  Our “present day” is 2044, in a Kansas where poverty and homelessness are rampant, and the only people who seem to have any money are criminals.  In particular, “Loopers.”  In the future’s future, about 30 years hence, time travel has been invented and immediately outlawed.  However, the underworld has the technology, and they send back a representative, Abe (Jeff Daniels) to set up a plan for perfect murder:  when they want someone dead in the future, they send him back to a particular moment and place, tied up and with a bag over his head, where a Looper assassin waits to blow him away the instant he appears.  Then the Looper dumps the body, which doesn’t even exist in the future.

The wrinkle, and the reason the assassins are called “Loopers,” is that at some point the killer will “close the loop” by killing his own future self (he finds out after the fact when discovering his payment is in the form of gold bars rather than silver).  At that point, he knows he’s got 30 years to spend his riches before his time, so to speak, will come.

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a highly successful Looper, with hundreds of silver bars hidden under the floor of his apartment.  The day comes, of course, where everything goes wrong:  his future self (Bruce Willis) appears without tied hands or a hood, and being Bruce Willis, he gets away.  This threatens to destroy the whole system, so everyone is after both versions of Joe.  An added level of complication is the word from the future that a mysterious, vicious new gang boss known as the “Rainmaker” is closing all the loops at once for unknown reasons.

Johnson has worked all this out with great ingenuity, especially the ways in which a present-day Looper can affect the memories and even the body (wounds in the present leave scars in the future) of his self.  (There’s a particularly clever way young Joe figures out how to send a message to his older counterpart.)  For about an hour, Looper works splendidly, a combination of smart plotting and explosive action.

Then it’s as though Johnson got bored with all that, and felt like he had to move on to higher levels of the video game in his head.  The movie, which already had plenty of film references (a club named after a Casablanca reference, repeated shots of a Godardian coffee cup), adds more layers of meta-reference.  The Willis version of Joe, it turns out, is on a mission not dissimilar from the one Willis had in 12 Monkeys (and thus of course also recalling Chris Marker’s La Jetee, the source of that story).  The plot of the original Terminator is invoked, and Johnson doesn’t miss a nod to Willis’ own genre, with a sequence allowing him to almost farcially blow everyone away in a heavily-guarded bunker without getting a scratch.  Meanwhile, young Joe has his reasons for hiding out on a farm with single mom Sara (Emily Blunt) and son Cid (Pierce Gagnon), for a storyline that would be Witness if she were only Amish.  In case all that isn’t enough, Johnson has a whole other Stephen King-ish plot going on (some of the inhabitants of 2044 have telekinetic abilities), which ultimately subsumes just about everything else in the story.

It’s all too much.  Before the end, you find yourself at the same point as with Johnson’s other films, mentally admiring and collating all the footnoted materials he’s assembled instead of actually enjoying the ride.  Each piece of the story–the time-travel conceits, the action sequences, the deepening relationship between Joe and Sara, the horror-movie tropes–is effective on its own, but when combined in Johnson’s blender, the tastes detract from each other instead of combining.

Also not helping:  the fact that even in the realm of science-fiction, there’s no genetic universe in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt could age to become Bruce Willis.  It’s not just that the two don’t look alike, although they don’t, despite much prosthetic effort put into Gordon-Levitt’s appearance– they don’t sound or act in any way like the same person.  Moonlighting began in 1985, so we know full well what Bruce Willis was like three decades ago, and this wasn’t it.  Honestly, Gordon-Levitt, as good an actor as he is and as fine a performance as he gives here, wasn’t ideally cast–even apart from the lack of resemblance to Willis, the underlying story requires him to be meaner and more self-obsessed at the start than Gordon-Levitt can comfortably play, in order for him to be transformed by the end.  The actor always comes across as ultimately a nice guy, which was also a problem for his role in Hesher. (Go figure:  Willis, probably not as talented as Gordon-Levitt generally, can play the same character arc beautifully.)

For all this, Looper is well worth seeing.  Johnson has more imagination than any half-dozen other genre filmmakers combined, and there are terrifically surprising and impressive moments here.  Willis gives one of his increasingly rare genuinely committed performances, and Emily Blunt is remarkable as a rural midwesterner, while the movie makes room for such marvelous character actors as Daniels, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Dano and (in a very non-USA Network role) Piper Perabo in smaller parts.  The production design by Ed Verreaux makes good use of a limited budget to create a believable future, and the cinematography by Steve Yedlin and editing by Bob Ducsay are first-rate.

Recently, Rian Johnson directed a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad, and that might have been a good exercise for him–a straightforward, single-genre piece of work that moves with unrelenting focus toward a satisfying conclusion.  One day, Johnson will figure out how to retain his inexhaustible appetite for stories and films while honing them all into one precise piece of narrative.  Looper isn’t quite that film.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."