Cid: Is he not good?
Sarah: …Well, we’re gonna find out what he is.
Embedded within Rian Johnson’s Looper is a utilitarian question: What level of self-sacrifice are you willing to make for the greater good? The eponymous Looper, Joe, finds his answer to that question changes with the ebb and flow of time. Of course this is a movie about time-travel, so that flow isn’t linear. We do find out what Joe turns out to be, but surprisingly it’s not Old Joe from the future who shows us.
I still have a lot of catching up to do with 2012 releases (yet to see: Django Unchained, The Master, Argo, Lincoln, Flight, Seven Psychopaths, End of Watch…yikes), and maybe something will still bump Looper from my top spot. But I’d be surprised. Looper has a little of everything I love to see in movies: spellbinding visual storytelling; a character-driven plot with a few good twists; exciting, well-staged action; and hell, even some noir-tinged narration for good measure. And, eventually, well-earned and genuinely moving pathos.
So let’s start with that visual storytelling. Johnson’s a master at it (no wonder he’s directed two episodes of Breaking Bad), and Looper is the kind of movie that would still have certain pleasures even while watching it with the sound off. Nearly every shot has something interesting or witty happening within the frame. Take, for example, the way we see Seth’s shadow on Joe’s wall as he’s tapping on his window early in the film, just as Joe realizes he’s not in fact at his door; or a couple of topsy-turvy shots, one with the camera spinning as Joe walks through the crowd early in the film (high on that newfangled eye-drop drug), and the other with the frame turning 90 degrees along with Joe as he falls from the fire escape. If cinema is fundamentally a visual medium, then this is the type of filmmaking that makes the most of it.
Johnson’s style also helps create those thrilling action sequences. Particularly through use of pans and tracking shots (constant visual techniques employed throughout his three films) and in often letting complicated action play out in single takes (a balm in this age of tiresome chaos cinema), Johnson makes the physical relationship between elements consistently clear. You always know who is where and in relation to whom, which is particularly important here when the who and the whom are often the same guy.
What I find particularly remarkable about Looper, though, is that it begins as an explosively propulsive, highly stylized sci-fi thriller, and does it so damn well that it certainly could have stayed in that mode and still have been a damn good flick. But Johnson had bigger ideas he wanted to explore. The best science fiction uses its fantastical elements to get at deeper truths about human nature, and the time-travel gimmick of having a young man meet – and attempt to kill – his older self is only a setup for a story that’s ultimately about the cyclical nature of violence.
But like every other aspect of the movie, Looper is tricky about how it goes about making its point. Once we understand what we’re seeing during the remarkable sequence showing Joe’s 30-year “retirement” (speaking of visual storytelling, there’s a pretty nice clue to let us know we’ve – narratively – jumped back in time for a moment), we think we know where Looper is going. Joe wastes his savings on drugs and partying until he discovers the great revelation of his life comes when he only has five years left to live it: meeting a woman he loves and who loves him back. And so, this will be story of a young, selfish man who makes a short-sighted choice without realizing the best time of his life wouldn’t come for another 25 years – when he’s older and, presumably, wiser. Right?
No. Old Joe tells Young Joe during their fantastic diner confrontation that he has a “child mentality,” that he’s only interested in “what’s mine.” But the truth is that Old Joe is kidding himself to believe age has made him any better. Yes, Young Joe is only out for himself and his stash of cash, while Old Joe is fighting for the woman he loves – an ostensibly noble motivation. But how noble is it when he’s willing to kill children just to preserve memories of the woman he loved?
What Looper is really arguing here is that it’s not necessarily age that brings us wisdom, but experience and perspective. In the montage at the end, where we see Young Joe imagining Cid’s life after Old Joe murders his mother, it’s his position to see the whole picture – the full loop of death begetting more death – that allows Young Joe to attain a level of wisdom that even his older self hasn’t reached. To invert a line from No Country for Old Men, he’s younger by 30 years, but in a sense he becomes the older man – and makes the more mature choice.
Maybe I’m just a sucker for films about violence that are ultimately about non-violence (a couple of Jet Li movies come to mind), but Looper’s ending worked for me not just as an elegant way to sweep up the remaining loose ends/paradoxes, but as a moral statement. This woman deserved to live to raise her son, and one man’s selfish desires shouldn’t destroy that. “Ask yourself: who would I sacrifice for what’s mine?” future-man Abe asks Joe early in the movie. In the end, we see what he was willing to sacrifice to protect someone else. When it comes to whether human beings have the capacity to change for the better, it turns out Johnson’s an optimist.
Yes, as with all time-travel stories, think too much about Looper’s details and the whole thing starts to fall apart. To begin with, there’s the well-established “Terminator” paradox that if Old Joe is the one who kills Sarah, thus leading Cid to become the Rainmaker, then the Rainmaker shouldn’t have existed in the first place before Old Joe went back in time. And here’s another one, just for fun: If the problem with killing people in the future is body disposal (“tracking techniques, whatnot”), then why not kill them first and send their dead bodies back in time to be disposed, leaving no possibility of a loop running?
Blah, blah, blah. The answer to all such snarky questions is provided by Old Joe in the movie: “IT DOESN’T MATTER!” If everything in Looper doesn’t quite add up, it can be forgiven for what those opened loops serve to provide us: the rare movie that works fantastically as a thriller, a sci-fi head-scratcher, a great action flick, and a character-driven morality tale. This is a movie stuffed with ideas, and it pulls all of them off.
Well, Rian Johnson has admitted to being a huge Cowboy Bebop Fan…
Looking back at Johnson’s burgeoning filmography, you see in it a guy who clearly has a lot to say and a lot of interesting ways to say it. His excellent debut Brick was a neo-noir that funneled teenage crime and social status anxiety through the prism of detective movies. The Brothers Bloom (a few too many endings notwithstanding) used the tropes of con-man movies to make an affecting commentary about how we all imagine our lives as an ongoing “story” to make it all feel a little more meaningful.
And now Looper, which cements Johnson as one of the most exciting filmmakers of his generation. He begins with high-concept genre setups, but is never satisfied to end there, always digging for deeper themes to mine and always finding inventive and exciting ways to show it. I can’t wait to see whatever he comes up with next.