My love for Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been well-documented on this blog — he was a big motivator in seeing movies like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Stop-Loss, and he’s pretty much the only reason I saw Premium Rush at all– so I don’t imagine it’s any big surprise that I went to see Looper in theater as well. But the truth is, as much as I like JGL on his own, it was the reunion of him and Brick director Rian Johnson that made me desperate to see this film for over a year.
For my money, it’s not perfect. But despite its flaws, it’s still a pretty damn good movie.
In the future, time travel is invented but illegal as all hell. Also, it’s really hard to dispose of bodies properly because of Future Forensics. So, crime organizations in 2072 send people they want dead back to 2042 so that Loopers can kill them and get rid of the evidence. If a Looper encounters his future self, he’s supposed to kill the guy anyway (closing the loop) or else suffer the consequences. Which Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) learns all about when his future self, Old Joe (Bruce Willis), is sent back to the past and quickly escapes.
1.) I don’t despise time travel stories the way my friend Cory does, but they aren’t necessarily my favorite, either — although it has nothing to do with mechanics or logic because, pah. Who cares about mechanics and logic? (Answer: many people. But as we all know, science bores me, and my little pop culture obsessed brain has a lot of trouble unraveling time travel paradoxes, so mostly I just don’t think about them.) Point is, if you want to know more about the time travel itself and if it makes sense and that kind of stuff — go to another blog after you finish reading my (clearly superior) review because I am going to spend zero time talking about that shit.
My problem with time travel stories is the exact same problem I have with prophecy stories — I never feel surprised by the endings. Not because each and every story is predictable in itself but because there always seems to be only two ways that the story can play out: the future either happens the way it’s foretold, or it changes. I suppose you can think of most stories that way (the guy either gets the girl or he doesn’t; the girl either escapes from the monster or she dies) but it feels different in a time travel story, somehow, maybe because the future is what gets the plot going and thus always seems inevitable? I’m not sure. That probably doesn’t make sense — I’m still trying to work it out in my head.
Point is, I think Looper has a really original premise to start with but it eventually veers hard into some pretty used time travel tropes — which I’d be cool with if the movie did something really original with them by the end, but it doesn’t really. And it’s not a bad ending, exactly — it’s just not a particularly exciting one, either, and I can’t think of a time travel movie where I watched the last scene and thought, Wow, that was AWESOME.
( . . . actually, that’s a lie. One time travel movie definitely surprised me, but since the time travel element itself is kind of a spoiler, I can’t say which movie it is.)
2. The biggest problem, though, facing Looper is not the ending (which, actually, I can pretty easily forgive) but . . . let’s call it a subplot. I don’t know if subplot is really the most accurate term here, but it’s a hard thing to talk about without spoilers, so . . . subplot. It’s problematic, mostly because it’s just not necessary. I mean, I want to like it — it leads to some pretty cool scenes — but with one really quick fix, I can edit it out of the whole movie and change virtually nothing in the rest of the story.
The problem is, I don’t actually want to delete this element — I just wish this subplot actually felt essential to the main plot. I think there’s a pretty easy fix for that too — but I can’t talk about it until the Spoiler Section. Suffice it to say, this movie has an unusual structure — it’s like two time travel stories in one film — and if this one element or subplot was handled a little better, I think it would tie everything together. As is, the movie is just a bit too uneven for me to give it a solid A.
3. On the other hand, the very best thing Looper has going for it is awesome moral ambiguity.
Okay, he doesn’t kill kittens. There is no kitten-killing in this movie. But most of the characters in this movie — Joe, Old Joe, Sarah, even Cid — have done some pretty shitty things, on screen or off. Which isn’t to say you don’t have sympathy for them or can’t see why they’re doing what they’re doing, but that doesn’t negate the fact that they’re not the nicest people in the world. This isn’t a story of white hats versus black hats, and I was honestly surprised when characters who I thought would be good guys turned for the dark quite quick.
4. Also, the violence is excellent. I really can’t praise that enough. Looper isn’t a slasher gore fest, but it has some fairly violent moments, and they are done well. One part in particular actually made me cringe, and I like to think that’s not entirely easy to do.
5. We have a fairly excellent cast here in Looper. Sadly, some very good actors — Paul Dano, Garrett Dillahunt, Tracie Thoms, and to a certain extent, even Jeff Daniels — are fairly small parts. The major roles go to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt.
Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
. . . do I even need to say he’s awesome? I mean, was there any doubt? Well, in case there was . . . Gordon-Levitt is awesome here, specifically because he’s extremely successful at playing a younger version of Bruce Willis. Prosthetics will be its own note later, but the acting itself is pretty terrific — you can really see Willis in all of Gordon-Levitt’s mannerisms and facial expressions, and I thought that was very cool. The performance is a great imitation but never descends into parody, and I think with a lesser actor it probably would have.
Old Joe (Bruce Willis)
I like Bruce Willis here too. I’m not certain it’s much of a stretch for him — Bruce Willis is kind of always Bruce Willis — but he still does a good job with the role of Older Joe, and I really like the scenes where he and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play off each other.
Sara (Emily Blunt)
I like Emily Blunt a lot too — I believe her when she’s standing in front of a cornfield, shotgun in hand. She can be both tough and vulnerable without being a total cliche, and I’d like to say that’s not difficult, but a lot of actresses seem to have trouble with it. I think her performance allows me to have more sympathy for Sara than I normally would have. Also, her American accent is pretty good. I only noticed it slip once.
6. The only other actor I haven’t mentioned yet is Noah Segan, who plays Kid Blue.
I’m assuming Rian Johnson and Noah Segan are best friends because this guy is in all of Johnson’s movies. Once I realized that he was Dode, the piehouse rat from Brick, I couldn’t think of him as anything else, and while Segan isn’t bad here or anything — I don’t know, I think he gets more screen time than the role actually requires.
7. I actually wasn’t expecting this movie to be a sci-fi noir, but it sort of is. I mean, there are no private investigators, and the script isn’t packed full of Brick slang, but there’s definitely a noir tone here that I really enjoy. It does kind of fade out in the second half, though. I actually really enjoy the tone of the second half too, just . . . there’s a pretty clear divide between parts one and two of this film.
8. Still, this movie looks great. I think Rian Johnson shot the hell out of Looper — if you get the chance to see it in theater, I’d recommend it because it looks awesome on the big screen.
9. The worst thing about seeing something relatively new in theaters is that it’s really hard to look up quotes online. I damn well know there were a handful of quotes I really liked, but it’s been about four or five days since I’ve seen this now, and I no longer remember them all. The few I could find . . .
Abe: “I’m from the future. Go to China.”
Abe: “Ask yourself: who would I sacrifice for what’s mine?”
Joe: “Your face looks backwards.”
Old Joe: “You know, there’s another waitress who works here?”
Old Joe: “Yeah. Less letters.”
10. Finally, the prosthetics . . . you know, I’m still torn on those. Sometimes, it drives me nuts when they cast two actors who don’t look a damn thing alike to play the same person, and Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt would have to work pretty hard to look less alike. I thought the prosthetics were a smart idea to fix this, and sometimes I didn’t even notice them, so focused was I on the action . . . but then there would be a shot where the wrongness of Gordon-Levitt’s face was unavoidable, and it would jar me out of the story.
So, I still have no conclusion on that. For all my other conclusions, though, continue below.
Let me very briefly set up the TK subplot, and then I’ll go over the whole movie.
So there’s apparently some gene for telekinesis, and the people who have it can float quarters in the air a little. Unfortunately, that’s about all they can do — X-Men, this is not — so no one really cares about it. (I would still be pretty impressed with myself if I could levitate coins, but I’ll have to agree with Joe that it seems sort of “tacky” to try and impress girls with this.)
Clearly, this is important because no one brings up ‘oh yeah, so a few people like my buddy Seth here just happen to be randomly telekinetic’ for no reason, but it takes a little while before we find out why.
Now. Joe’s life is pretty much a rinse and repeat cycle of drugs, prostitutes, and murder. Also, French lessons. (Any excuse for Joseph Gordon-Levitt to speak French.) He plans to retire to France as soon as he’s saved up enough money to leave, and there’s something pretty amusing about him practicing his vocab by listening to one of those language tapes right before he calmly blows some guy away.
Now a lot of Loopers have been closing their own loops lately, which makes people a little nervous, but hey . . . that’s what they have drugs for, right? Also gold. When a Looper kills some regular dude from the future, he gets silver, but when he kills his future self he gets gold, and a shitload of it, enough to retire on. Joe’s friend, Seth (Paul Dano), can’t do it, however, and tries to hide out with Joe while Old Seth tries to run away. Joe is taken to his boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels), who basically says we know you have Seth, and you’re going to tell me where he is, or I’m going to take all of the silver you’ve been saving to get away.
So, Joe sells Seth out. And admittedly, Seth is kind of a whiny useless excuse for a friend, and I certainly understand the desperation you feel when your escape path gets cut out from under you, but still . . . Joe betrays his friend. That’s not nice.
As the mobsters take Seth, we see Old Seth trying to escape the city. Just as he’s starting to climb a fence, though, fingers start disappearing off his hand, leaving scarred stumps in their wake. A giant scar starts to pop up on the inside of his arm, telling him to be at some location in, like, fifteen minutes. Old Seth doesn’t really have any other choice but to follow the directions because he keeps losing pieces as they cut them off of Young Seth. By the time Old Seth crashes his car at the meeting spot (it’s hard to drive when you suddenly don’t have feet), he is also missing his nose and his tongue. It’s all pretty horrific and made me squirm a little in my seat — I love when a movie can do that.
Anyway, Old Seth is killed, and Joe tries to go back to his life. He has a thing for a pretty prostitute named Suzie (Piper Perabo), but while she seems to like him okay, she’s also clearly just doing her job and isn’t particularly interested in his romantic notions of someday taking her and her kid away from this horrible life of depravity.
Things go seriously awry for Joe when he shows up to work one day and the target doesn’t pop up at the usual time. He’s just checking his pocket watch, going, “Hmmm . . .” when Old Joe shows up. However, Old Joe isn’t tied down, and he doesn’t have a bag over his head like the usual targets. Joe hesitates for just a second, and that’s long enough for Old Joe to get the upper hand and knock Joe out. Joe later wakes up with a note pinned to him that says get the hell out of town.
Joe, of course, does not do that because he’s a bit of an idiot and is determined to a) get the silver out of his apartment, and b) kill Old Joe and get his life back. He is quickly knocked unconscious again. (I’m convinced Rian Johnson enjoys beating the shit out of Joseph Gordon-Levitt.) So Old Joe is forced to save his life and leaves another note that basically says: leave town and this time I mean it.
Joe again refuses to do that and sets up a meet between the two of them by cutting into his own arm. At first, it looks like the same message Old Seth got (BE AT . . .) but it turns out to be BEATRIX, the name of a waitress at this diner. Old Joe later points out that Jen is also a waitress there, and her name has less letters. It may be my favorite line in the whole movie.
Beatrix, by the way, is played by Tracie Thoms, who is fabulous —
— but sadly only in the movie for about seven minutes. I would like to see her in more things.
Moving on. We get to see how men in the future came for Old Joe, killed his beautiful savior wife, and tried to send him back in time. Old Joe managed to kill those guys but decided to go back in time anyway, in order to kill the Rainmaker in the past. (The Rainmaker is the Big Boss Dude in the future who starts closing all the loops and killing people and whatnot.) He doesn’t know exactly where Young Rainmaker is, but he has three different addresses.
Joe is not on board with this plan and says he’s going to kill Old Joe. Having come to an impasse, Old Joe beats the shit of Joe. The bad guys come and try to kill them, and they both run off in opposite directions. Joe has one of the addresses and goes there. This ends up being Emily Blunt’s house by the corn.
Emily Blunt plays Sara, and Sara has a ridiculously smart kid named Cid. When she was younger, Sara was addicted to drugs and doing all kinds of bad shit in the city, and she abandoned Cid with her sister and partied instead of being a mom. She only came back to the job when her sister died, although to be fair, she’s all cleaned up now. Still, my sympathy for people who abandon their kids is severely limited, and I think credit is due to Emily Blunt for making me care about Sara at all.
Anyway, Sara doesn’t trust Joe for any number of reasons, not the least of which is his addiction to the Eye Drop Drug, but she eventually lets him stay there so that he may kill Older Joe when Older Joe comes by to kill her kid.
For yes, this has suddenly become a reverse Terminator story — or a let’s kill Baby Hitler story — and Old Joe has come back in time to murder three children. For some reason, I didn’t fully pick up on that during the diner scene, so when he kills Kid One, I was surprised because he initially seemed to be moving into the role of Hero while Joe was considerably less sympathetic at that point. It never occurred to me going into this movie that Old Joe would become the real villain, way more than Abe and his future goonies, and I was really impressed with this development.
And he’s not even just killing one kid — he plans to kill two other children that he knows are innocent, just to make sure he gets the right one. Evil. But at the same time, you totally get where Old Joe is coming from, and he’s never all gloaty or mustache-twirly about it– in fact, there’s actually a nice little breakdown scene after Old Joe kills Kid One. Also, the scene where he’s desperate to make sure he remembers his dead savior wife in the midst of all this changing timeline stuff is a nice moment of good character development. *Does the complex characters and moral ambiguity happy dance.*
So, it turns out that Cid will actually become the Rainmaker, and also he’s a little TK monster.
Which is to say that when he gets hurt or angry or scared, Cid can pretty much float everything in the house and also explode people. Which he does to Garrett Dillahunt when he comes looking for Joe.
Turns out that Cid accidentally killed his aunt in one of his telekinetic temper tantrums . . . so even the kid has done some awful shit, even if he didn’t mean to. As a side note, I like how you think Sara is running to catch her boy from falling down the stairs when you suddenly realize she’s actually moving to push Joe out of the way of Cid’s rage. I thought that was nicely done.
Meanwhile, Old Joe goes after Kid 2, but this turns out to be Suzie the Prostitute’s Kid. He feels bad about this for a little while but goes to do it anyway . . . only to get caught by proverbial fuck up Kid Blue, who set a trap for him there.
Amusingly, Kid Blue catches him for the wrong reason, figuring Old Joe is just as obsessed with Suzie as Joe is. But hey, he catches the guy, at least, so good for him. He’s been pretty obsessed with it for the whole movie, actually, because he wants to make Abe proud.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter because Old Joe eventually gets loose and kills Abe and everyone else. Everyone, that is, except for Kid Blue. For my money, this is where Kid Blue should die because he really serves no further purpose to the story except for a stupid complication later that could have been cause by anything . . . but moving on.
Old Joe makes his way over to Sara’s before Sara and Cid can run for the hills. Cid freaks out and starts doing his TK thing again, nearly killing Old Joe and Sara. (Joe has been waylaid by Kid Blue. Like I said, it’s a little dumb — the execution of it feels way too convenient.) Sara manages to talk Cid down, which is basically the first time this has ever worked.
Sara tells Cid to run away and blocks Old Joe from going after him. Old Joe is about to kill her, even though he doesn’t want to. Joe pops up (finally) and sees how the future is going to play out — Old Joe will kill Sara, and Cid will become a monster because his mom was murdered by a Looper and, also, because he never learned how to control his gift/rage and all that. So Joe does the only thing he can think of: he shoots himself in the heart. (I figure he could have shot himself in the hand or foot or something, but Old Joe’s pretty relentless. I don’t think it’s cheap that Joe shot himself — I’m just a survivalist by nature, and I think that I would have tried shooting myself in the hand first before I came to the conclusion that I absolutely had to shuffle myself off this mortal coil.)
Anyway, Joe dies and Old Joe disappears, and Sara and Cid are safe. That’s about the end.
Now . . . it’s the telekinesis subplot where this movie falls down a bit for me. I actually don’t mind that the story shifts a bit in tone, and I’m actually okay that it turns to a pretty well-known time travel trope/cliche. I like old stories, as long as you do something interesting with them. And while self-sacrifice is not exactly original, I’m so happy Looper ended with Joe dying instead of Sara — because the whole future Joe imagined where Cid becomes the Rainmaker because of murdered Mommy? Yeah, I called that about an hour into the movie. I would have been extremely disappointed if the movie had ended this way.
But the reason the telekinesis fails . . . it’s just not necessary. If Future Cid was just some truly awful person who started killing all the Loopers and causing havoc and mayhem and whatnot . . . you know, if he was just a terrible, non-psychic human like, I don’t know, Hitler . . . the story doesn’t change in any meaningful way. If we saw Future Cid using his telekinesis to destroy the world or something, then it might be different . . . maybe the two stories would tie together better . . . but as is, the telekinesis feels thrown in instead of woven, and the whole movie suffers a little for it. Like I said earlier, the telekinesis scenes are awesome, and I don’t want to get rid of them . . . I just want them to feel intrinsic to the story itself, not just a dangling thread.
Even with that problematic subplot, though, this movie is still pretty awesome.
Great acting. Great cinematography. Neat story. Awesome violence. Good dialogue. Complex characters. So, so close to being an amazing movie instead of just a pretty good one.
Times are tough, but any job that demands that you kill any version of yourself is probably not a job worth having.