Having seen and loved Rian Johnson’s two previous films, I was prepared to be dazzled by Looper, his third feature. I was not prepared to be deeply moved by it.
If you don’t know Rian Johnson’s work as writer/director, you will; he’s still only 39. Brick (2005) was brilliant; a film noir, set in a modern high school, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as whatever the high school equivalent would be for a hard boiled detective. In it, Johnson invented his own version of noire hard-boiled lingo; like a modern kid channeling and updating Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. If anything, The Brothers Bloom was even more ambitious; a tale of con men brothers. The first seven minutes, entirely in verse, set up a wondrous tale of crooks redeemed by the love of a completely insane Rachel Weisz. Watch the clip and tell me you aren’t blown away.
Having explored a present-day setting for noire, and imagined a con man past, Johnson now turns to a violent dystopic future. It’s 2042, an America in which vagrants are casually murdered, in which cars are mostly clunkers retrofitted with solar panels, except for a few flashy sports cars driven mostly by wealthy sociopaths, in which motorcycles have hovercraft capabilities and a few people, known as TKs, have minor telekinetic powers, mostly limited to getting small coins to float a few inches above a surface. Drugs are prevalent and administered through eyedrops, and prostitution offers the best career path for ambitious women. It’s a grimy, trash-filled future, poverty co-existing with flashy wealth.
And time travel is used for murder.
In 2042, people can’t time travel, but they know people in 2072 will be able to, but it will become illegal, and only used by crime syndicates to dispose of people who have become inconvenient. To avoid the hassles of 2072 law enforcement, murder victims are transported thirty years into the past, where they are dispatched by assassins known as loopers. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, one such looper. His days are spent waiting in some secluded field. A hooded and bound victim shows up, Joe shoots him, cuts the silver bars off his back (his payment), and tosses the body into an incinerator. Joe works for Abe (Jeff Daniels), and when a fellow looper, Seth (Paul Dano) shows up, desperate because he hasn’t been able to go through with one more killing, Joe agrees to hide him. For awhile. But Abe offers a little more silver, and Joe gives up his best friend easily enough. What’s friendship and loyalty next to a few pieces of silver?
Loopers are called that because of their retirement plan. At a certain point, they can ‘close the loop,’ kill their own 30-year-older selves. When you close the loop, you find gold instead of silver for your reward, and you are then officially retired, with enough money to party in style, for thirty years, until the time when you will be bundled up and delivered to your own younger-self assassin.
Joe has a good life–a hooker girlfriend and a drug habit to support and a luxurious lifestyle. Everything changes, though, when his older self, played by Bruce Willis, shows up, entirely uninterested in being murdered. Older Joe fights off Younger Joe, and suddenly both Joes are the subjects of a massive manhunt orchestrated by Abe, and by his Gat-men, called that for the long-barreled pistols they favor.
It turns out that old Joe’s made a good life for himself over thirty years. He has gotten over his drug habit, made a good life in China, all through the love of a good woman, his (unnamed) wife, played beautifully by Qing Xu. But a criminal mastermind, The Rainmaker, has taken over crime internationally, and ordered not just Joe’s death, but the closing of all loops. When captured, Old Joe saw his wife murdered. But he’s learned some things, the hospital and date where The Rainmaker was born, and the 2042 addresses of the three boys born that day, that place. So his intention is to kill the Rainmaker, restoring his life and saving his wife.
At which point, the tone of the movie changes, from gritty mean-streets urban, to pastoral, bucolic. In a scuffle, young Joe gets hold of one of those addresses. He goes there, and finds Sara (Emily Blunt), a single mom, living on a farm, raising her son, Cid. She’s initially suspicious of young Joe, but he persuades her that all he wants is his life back–he thinks, by killing old Joe, he will be forgiven by Abe, and will be able to enjoy the benefits of having closed the loop. But he and Sara become friends, then lovers. He gets off drugs. He begins to see the possibility of a different future.
Meanwhile, Old Joe, Bruce Willis Joe, is killing children.
If you could time travel back to Weimar Germany, if you could find the young Hitler, would you kill him? What if Hitler was a ten-year old boy? What if Hitler was one of three ten-year old boys? Would you be willing to murder them all? What if that was the only way you could think of to save your wife’s life?
I won’t give away the ending. I’ll only say that I found it completely unpredictable, and also completely right, that I did not anticipate it at all, and that it worked perfectly, and also that I was wiping away a tear as I left the theater. It became a film about love, about redemption through love, about desperately damaged souls who are able to change because of love, the love of a mother for her child, the love of a man for his wife. And it used the time travel paradox to accomplish all that. Oh, and also telekinesis.
It wasn’t until I was driving home afterwards that I realized that Paul Dano’s character, Seth, killed ten minutes into the movie, was actually Sara’s former lover and Cid his surviving child, and that the end of the movie was as much about friendship as it was about romantic love. It’s just one of those movies where everything works, where even minor characters are treated generously, including Noah Segan as a sad-sack killer wannabe, and Garrett Dillahunt as a killer with a conscience. If you prefer a sunnier kind of sci-fi, this might not be the movie for you. But I thought it was a tremendous movie achievement.