Looper: Amidst the Time Travel, A Tale of Mothers and Sons
In an early scene, our protagonist tells a showgirl to take his money and use it to raise her son. At the time, it rings slightly false: the movie seems too smart to fall victim to the “seedy hero/madonna-whore love story” stereotype. Yet soon we realize it isn’t about the showgirl at all– it’s about her son, and our hero’s sympathy for the fate of a child at risk of an improper upbringing. This is the depth of Looper, an emotional time-travel film impossible to sum up in a trailer. Rian Johnson, three for three in making brilliant feature films, gives Looper a fast pace, sharp stylish dialogue, sleek visuals, and a seemingly endless source of tension, thrills, and even horror. That source isn’t the time travel or the science fiction– it’s the pressure felt by a man obligated to save children and horrified by what his own future holds in store. It’s one of the best of its genre in years.
Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper. What, pray tell, is a looper? A looper is a hired assassin. See, in the future, the mob control time travel. Due to advanced human tracking, bodies can’t easily be disposed of, so they send bodies back in time to loopers– the looper kills them, disposes of the bodies, and reports the successful deaths back to a mob rep from the future named Abe (Jeff Daniels). This job has an expiration date, however, and all loopers eventually “close their loops,” i.e. they are sent their older selves to kill, along with a big payday and the knowledge that they live another thirty years. When Joe’s friend Seth (Paul Dano) tells him the future is ruled by a maniac named The Rainmaker closing all loops, he hesitates when he encounters the older version of himself (Bruce Willis). Older Joe has come back with a mission: find the Rainmaker and kill him before he ruins the future. Joe’s mission remains the same: close his loop, otherwise Abe and the rest of the mob will ensure he doesn’t live out those next thirty years.
Science fiction fans will immediately look to the world of the story. Johnson has taken the route of not changing much– most everything in this story is credible. We look in the streets and see vagrants, homeless living in cars, entire families without even a cardboard box to huddle in. Most futuristic societies have flashy clothing, flying cars, robots everywhere. It seems to me that poverty, overpopulation, and further division of classes is far more likely. The current generation of young men and women we are introduced to don’t care about tomorrow: they live for the present and their concept of the welfare of others is limited at best. Again, the mirror held up to present-day society.
At one point, Abe mocks Joe’s fashion sense, telling him ties are old-fashioned; he should wear something akin to the usual sci-fi archetypes. Yet Joe’s ties don’t just show us his aversion to change, they show symbolically his ties to the past. His life has been designed to avoid emotion– he drinks, parties, and prefers not to contemplate moral ramifications. Yet we don’t see him with many women, and when we do, they aren’t objects of lust so much as objects of deeply rooted pure feeling: the showgirl (Piper Perabo) whose life he wants to save in a rare moment of lucidity, the waitress in the diner he learns French for, and the mother (Emily Blunt) on the farm he spends much of the second half of the film protecting. He blames the loss of his mother at an early age for his own fate, and his tenderness towards women and children reflects that. Even Old Joe can understand this, as he persistently refers to the woman in the future who will “save his life”– and we see shots of her cradling him, cleaning him.
I have difficulty with the tone of the ending of the film, as a morally complex and remarkably short-sighted decision is made (one could argue it creates a slew of logic problems as well, but no matter). Yet it *feels* heroic. This is because the focus of the film rests exclusively on mothers and sons by the time we reach the conclusion, so while I felt upset that Willis’ storyline gets the short end of the stick, I understood that was a choice, not sloppy filmmaking. Looper is anything but sloppy, honestly– Rian Johnson’s plotting in his three films to date is meticulous. There are moments in the middle of the film where the conflict between Joe and Old Joe hits the forefront, and instead of the usual “man sees himself in child” theme which we’ve seen before, we reach themes of “man sees what he will become/older man has chance to fix his weaknesses,” which we can’t ever really get in any non-time travel films. This exhilarated me, and I wish the film could have spent more time exploring that… but it wasn’t Johnson’s intention, and wasting one’s time thinking about what a film “could have been” is a vain and useless complaint.
The focus on the emotional impact of the premise rather than the ceaseless explanation of how the premise works (Inception comes to mind) allows the actors to truly shine. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has never been as strong a leading man as he is here. His adaptation of Willis’ mannerisms allows for an uncannily credible character, and his intensity draws our eye at every moment of screen time. Bruce Willis, fresh off his unorthodox turn in Moonrise Kingdom, digs even deeper here– it’s no wonder he’s been saying to the press that this is the best movie of his career, as his emotional work here very well may be his tops. Old Joe’s past (i.e. the thirty years between himself and Joe) is full of darkness and regret, and the only path to save his existence takes him through moral ambiguity to put it very lightly. Willis’ acting in these scenes caught me offguard: the smart-aleck we’re used to drips away, revealing a tortured old man. Same goes for Emily Blunt, doing unquestionably career-best work. Her life as an actress has been defined by her coldness: when playing an emotionally-removed ice princess, she shines, but when the part requires her warmth to draw the audience in, she fails. Here, Johnson gives her the role she needed, the protective mother, trying to remain strong and unfeeling but her past mistakes and future fears bringing her emotions to the surface. In a year currently lacking in well-drawn supporting actress turns, we find one in the midst of a time-travel sci-fi movie.
Looper really isn’t about the science of the science fiction– Jeff Daniels says at one point, “This time travel shit just fries your brain like an egg.” It’s about the desire of the human spirit to repair: the desire to change the mistakes you’ve made, the desire to prevent future mistakes, the desire to save others from making mistakes. Both Old Joe and Young Joe feel the value of a child’s formative years with a mother. Old Joe feels very personally the loss of a loved one (shot, not coincidentally, in the womb) and wishes to deny the man who facilitated this the chance to grow old. Young Joe in vulnerable moments feels the loss of his mother, denying himself a chance to grow up innocent, mistake-free. He has a sensory experience that takes him back to the innocent days with his mom when the showgirl runs her fingers through his hair. At the film’s end, fingers are once again run through Joe’s hair– he’s changed, leaving behind the cold-blooded killer, and becoming once again someone innocent. Rian Johnson uses science fiction to paint a story of themes that feel painstakingly personal. While the ending may not tonally stick the landing, the lack of pure satisfaction I felt is likely only due to the rest of the film flirting with perfection. It’s exciting, emotional, and intelligent. It will push you back in time, leaving you grinning like a child at what it pulls off.