By Jacob Mertens.
Imagine the breadth of daily life changed by a single important innovation: the ability to travel through time. In order to breathe life into this story, a writer must allow the detail of time travel to slowly distort the world around it as if dropping a pebble in a shallow pond. So it happens with Rian Johnson’s ambitious third feature Looper, a follow up to the brooding noir classic Brick (2005) and the effervescent The Brothers Bloom (2008). Looper opens with a dry monologue from Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Joe, an unapologetic expositional riff on the basic functionality of time travel. The film takes place more than thirty years in the future, a time when the technology has yet to be invented. However, in another thirty years that will not be the case. Upon its inception, time travel is outlawed by the powers that be, only to live on as a black market tool for crime syndicates who use the past as a dumping ground for unwanted bodies. Apparently, in the film’s future bodies have some kind of electronic tag that make them impossible to kill without consequence, and so they are sent into the past hooded and tied up for assassins like Joe to forever silence with a quick shotgun blast. These assassins are called loopers, a group of junkies and degenerates that give the film its name.
If it were not for the monotonous delivery, the whole set up would feel quaint. The doomed men from the future have silver strapped to their back, a payment to the loopers for services rendered. The loopers’ fancy shotguns are both shaped and named after the blunderbuss muskets of old. Joe himself whiles away the hours before his kills learning French, eating the same meal at the same diner with the same cup of coffee and the same waitress. As with many assassin films, the protagonist is characterized by a rigorous routine that dehumanizes him, a fact that seems incongruous with a penchant nightly drug abuse that obliterates his evenings into a blur of club lights and squalid debauchery. However, because of this contrast of behavior Joe identifies himself as a product of his environment, one of a not so distant future in which the gap of economic disparity has grown more severe and recognizable. Joe has sold his soul for an escape, ignoring the dire catch of being a looper: once the assassin reaches the future he has aided for so long, he is sent to the past to be killed by his former self. Now, gold is strapped to his back, the “loop” is closed, and the looper lives the rest of his short life in luxury.
As with many time travel films, Looper is rife with plot holes and required leaps in logic. For instance, why are the bodies dumped thirty years in the past, allowing the assassins to age into the future and implicate the syndicates in their murders? If there was an explanation for this it escaped me, and in the end it doesn’t matter because without this detail the film would lose its impact. The film’s peril begins when Joe’s future self, played by Bruce Willis, manages to rip his constraints and hood off before leaping into the past. As Levitt’s Joe stares down his future self in confused awe, the older man takes the opportunity to knock him unconscious and take flight. Now, Levitt must track down his former self and finish the job before he is destroyed by the agency that employs him.
The fact that the film starts as a simple chase, in which Willis’ character knows the younger Joe’s movements ahead of time as foggy memories conflicting with his own vanishing past, offers a glimpse of what the film could have been. The fascinating change of the film’s world provoked by time travel only known in an unseen future, and the need for Old Joe to protect his younger self from harm lest he suffer from it, all the while having to avoid the murderous plight of that same younger self, creates a dynamic truly unique to a well-worn genre device. However, the film takes this tension and tries to build on it, forsaking its simple design with cumbersome details of a mutation involving telekinesis and a future leader of the crime syndicates who plunges the future into a reign of terror. If time travel is a pebble that casts smooth rings in a pond, than these additional forced details act as a boulder tossed in and muddying the waters.
Looper still offers strong action set pieces, and manages to be gripping and intelligently rendered despite its needlessly complicated plot. The film even occasionally hints at greatness. In fact, there is a fascinating scene in which Old Joe struggles to remember his wife while his younger self, whose path in life has clearly changed, begins to fall for a woman who cares for him in a rundown barn. Still, the threat of an impending dark future takes precedent and the emotional turmoil inherent in this scene is soon forgotten. In the end, the film ponders on the path the future might take given the actions rendered in the present. The bloodshed wrought to stall doom, the unexpectedly villainous role Old Joe slowly takes on, all happens to create a better future and to change fate. Appropriately, Looper offers its audience a tantalizing look at a film that could have become a genre masterpiece if it had just taken a different direction.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.