It’s with all this in mind that I sit down to write about how I felt about Rian Johnson’s new film, Looper. I don’t think there’s any way for me to discuss it without needing to refer to specific plot points. I’ll be as vague as possible, but you may still want to see the movie before you come back and read the rest of this. Consider yourself warned.
Anybody still with me?
I was (still am) a big fan of the TV show Party Down. I especially liked Martin Starr’s character, a douchey and pretentious screenwriter who would refer to his work as “hard sci-fi.”
Looper is decidedly not hard sci-fi. In fact, there’s a scene in the first hour in which one character announces the film will not be getting down and dirty explaining the space-time continuum lest the story become far too complex to navigate. This is not a film with big Philip K. Dick ideas. It’s merely using the time travel conceit as its jumping off point.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a hitman in the near future who specializes in a certain kind of faceless whacking. Time travel has been invented (and outlawed) in the future, and the mob uses it as a means of making people disappear. People who need to be gotten rid of are zapped back in time where an awaiting gunman (called a Looper) is waiting to shoot the target and eliminate the body.
But, it’s a little bit of a surprise for Joe when one day his target is late, and when it arrives, it’s his future self 30 years older and played by Bruce Willis. Old Joe escapes from Young Joe and Young Joe must track down his older self to satisfy his boss Abe (played by Will McAvoy himself, Jeff Daniels). I’m a big fan of Scott Frank’s film, The Lookout, and it’s fun to see Daniels and Gordon-Levitt on screen together again.
So far so good, right?
This much of the plot is covered pretty succinctly in the trailers. It’s in the film’s second half where things started to go a little off the rails for me.
MORE SPOILERS AHEAD
We find out that Old Joe had fallen in love in the future, and his wife had saved him from his nihilistic life of crime. We also find out that there’s an uber crime boss in the future called the Rainmaker. When Old Joe is summoned to have his loop closed, his wife is killed in the process. And, when Old Joe goes back in time, he decides to be a slight Terminator impersonation and make sure the Rainmaker never grows up to harm Joe’s wife.
With documentation from the future in hand, Old Joe surmises there are three small children in the past who might grow up to be this horrible mob boss, and Joe goes about killing these little kids. Yup, the protagonist of the story actually murders children. More on that later.
Meanwhile, Young Joe stakes out a farm where one of the three kids lives, waiting for Old Joe to show up so Young Joe can kill him, close his loop, and get on with his life. The child on the farm’s name is Cid (a remarkable child performance by Pierce Gagnon), and his single mother is Sara, played by Emily Blunt in what is probably the film’s best performance.
The first half of Looper is a lot of fun with a really groovy premise, but once Young Joe arrives at Sara’s farm, everything comes to a screeching halt. A boatload of exposition must be dumped, and everybody has to tell everybody else their life stories. This information is necessary for the story, but it’s incredibly awkwardly presented.
Also, did I mention the child murders?
The killing of children is something I’m sure Johnson didn’t enter into lightly. To be sure, Old Joe is obviously shaken by the course of action he feels compelled to take in order to save his future wife. But, it’s all really, really icky.
It all leads to a showdown between Old and Young Joe and, without divulging more plot points, I’ll just say I didn’t find that conclusion very satisfying.
Is Looper a bad film? Certainly not. Is it worth seeing? I think it is. The first half is gangbusters, but the second half sags and bogs down with awkward character moments. The superior first half carried the day for me.
One other point: who felt Gordon-Levitt needed distracting prosthetic makeup to look more like Willis? It’s a time travel movie for God’s sake! The audience that sees Looper is more than willing to suspend disbelief and accept those two actors as the same guy.