Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012)

Rian Johnson's Looper takes great pains to head off any in-depth discussion of the paradoxes and metaphysical nightmares associated with time travel narratives. This is true even when the protagonist, the hired killer Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has a conversation with his 30-years-older self (Bruce Willis). "We'll be here all day, making diagrams with straws," Old Joe says to Young Joe by way of warning. After a while, Looper largely lets its genre trappings fall to the wayside, leaving behind its references to over-mined sci-fi classics and newer hits. "The movies you're copying are copying other movies," Young Joe's boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels), says of the young man's wardrobe, but it could also be seen as a chiding the director takes to heart for his film.

Take time travel out of the scenario, though, and even the denser, more classically sci-fi first act of the film could still run under the same circular title. Young Joe's life moves in endless repetitions. As a hired gun employed by future mobsters looking to dispose of their enemies in the past (where bodies are harder to track, especially if they technically do not exist), Joe's life follows a set pattern. Be at the right place on-time, blast the target when it suddenly appears, collect his money and go party. Joe saves most of his money for the early retirement people in his line of work receive, but as Johnson's montage of Joe's routine speeds up under the influence of the cleaner's drug use and dispassion, it becomes evident that retirement may prove more debilitating for him than his profession. Not that he will get to find out, however, when his final target, himself, manages to overpower his younger self and threatens to create a whole new timeline. Imagine how weird this would be if the director didn't try so hard to avoid time talk.

Johnson has built a name for himself as a visually dynamic shooter, and his stylistic flourishes are certainly welcome among the more impersonal, incomprehensible mega-blockbusters. In an early scene, he amps up the sensory experience with a sudden camera stutter and explosion of volume when Joe drops drugs into his eye and blinks. The camera is then set a-reeling, the spartan visual setup accompanying the pulpy, mercifully terse expositional introduction giving way to swooning, arcing movements around the decayed urban shell of 2042 Omaha. The best and most disturbing play on the time-travel angle involves the fate of Joe's friend and colleague, Seth (Paul Dano), who helps set everything in motion by failing to kill his own future self and revealing to Joe how horrifying the punishment for this failure is. He does not even see the worst of it, which the audience gets to view via the future self, whose escape attempt is thwarted when his extremities start slowly, terrifyingly disappearing as his past self is brutally changed. Editing maintains a consistent sense of clarity and flow, never using the time-travel story as an excuse to confound. This is true even of the shots that blend the alternate timelines of the two Joes and the memories the older one has and wishes to protect as his younger self's path is drastically altered by his refusal to die according to plan.

The one memory Old Joe treasures most also acts as his motive for carrying out a mission to alter the future by dealing with a monster in its infancy. Without going too far into this sudden story development, suffice to say it readily recalls The Terminator, down to a shot of a gun-toting Willis kicking in a residential door and stalking inside that comes right out of James Cameron's film. This change of pace introduces a deep moral element into the film to fill the gaps where, in other films, more time-travel play might go. Teased as a warped action film, Looper instead devotes its time to the morality of killing an innocent before it can grow into a mass-murderer, and whether such actions work or merely exacerbate the problem.

Where the film stumbles is in its middle passage, after Old Joe's mission has been made clear but before he realizes which of his small list of targets is the person he wants to terminate. Trading the rotted city for open fields, Looper abruptly, and by the admission of its maker, looks to Witness as a key inspiration. But where Peter Weir's film maintained the overall level of tension by altering its source from corrupted cops hunting one of their own to the friction between the honest, modern cop and the Amish community in which he hides. Looper only sporadically transfers over its own suspense, but it also places that tension into a vessel that clangs against the time-travel story with a whole other issue that throws off the film's momentum. This shifted focus on mutation, though somewhat grounded in brief sights of low-powered telekinesis being used by arrogant showboats in the city, is never meshed credibly with the rest of the story and comes off as tacked-on rather than fluid.

Nevertheless, Johnson manages to spin even this awkward addition into a positive, using it to probe questions of the impermanence of the future and the question of whether love can be as powerful a method of saving lives as a disposal of evil. Emily Blunt makes a powerful impression as the rural mother who takes in Young Joe and could expose him to that which Old Joe wishes to eradicate. Her performance is all the more so affecting because she never makes clear whether her care is sufficient to alter the future. But then, Looper does not suggest that only one person's love can hold back the darkness, nor does evil exist in a vacuum. If the film's middle act lags, it almost makes up for it with the ending, in which an evil is attacked, but perhaps not the one you would think. The final act is motivated by love, but then so is much of the horrific content of the film, from Old Joe's vendetta to the emotional instability of the figure who could grow up to be a tyrant. Because of this, Looper does not leave the audience with a tidy, thrilling high but a morally unsure, emotionally devastating conclusion. If nothing else, it shows a willingness to try to be something other than "awesome," which has weighed down so many summer films in recent years.

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