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Non-Review Review: Looper

This movie was seen as part of Movie Fest, which was as much of a joy this year as it was last year. If not moreso.

Looper is a wonderful high-concept science-fiction film that makes a shrewd decision to avoid dwelling on temporal mechanics. A “time travel” movie, Looper is far more preoccupied with fascinating metaphysical questions about cycles of violence and cause-and-effect than it is with temporal paradoxes or the butterfly effect. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that it’s actually a lot easier to follow than director Rian Johnson’s earlier collaboration with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brick. It’s fast, it’s smart, and it’s very well put together. It’s a meticulously constructed and breathlessly engaging thriller, and one that never under-estimates its audience.

Little room for Levitt-y…

It’s a little too easy to spoil time travel films. Due to their nature, the movies work best seen with as little information as possible. Indeed, Looper is probably best enjoyed with the least possible amount of spoilers. It’s remarkable how deftly Johnson constructs the movie – everything fits together surprisingly well, but without seeming awkwardly contrived. Time travel movies tend to, by their nature, become ridiculously convoluted or needlessly complex, while Looper is never difficult to follow. It’s always clear where the characters are and what they want at a given moment.

Without spoiling too much, Looper sees a future where time travel still hasn’t been invented, but one where it will be invented. In quite a few ways, Johnson’s movie feels like a bit of a deconstruction of a lot of mainstream science fiction – movies that show mankind using technology to better themselves. In Looper, we see a society that has made several significant breakthroughs, but hasn’t been changed by them. These gifts and massive leaps forward haven’t made the world a better place or advanced mankind as whole – they’re simply exploited to allow greedy individuals to turn a profit.

Where there’s a Willis…

You would imagine that a society inventing time travel would use it to explore the time-stream – to satisfy our curiosity and to expand our awareness. Instead, Looper suggests that only the mob sees the benefit of the technology. Rather than using time travel to explore or past or strive towards the future, the mob uses it as a convenient place to dump dead bodies. They send people back in time, and the eponymous “loopers” kill them and dispose of the body. There’s a sense that the law hasn’t kept pace with this sleazy and mundane use of what should be a revolutionary technology.

Similarly, Johnson suggests that the next leap in human evolution won’t really matter in a culture built on fifteen minutes of fame, with starving people worrying about food. He introduces us to “T.K.’s”, people with telekinetic gifts. Based on what we hear, the most significant application of this leap forward is impressing girls in bars. At one point, Sara laughs at guess trying to impress her by levitating a coin. “One guy burst a blood vessel in his eye trying to get it up,” she explains, double entendré intended.

Get off her lawn…

“We thought we’d end up with superheroes,” Joe explains. “Instead we got @$$holes who thought they were blowing our minds by levitating a quarter a couple of inches.” Johnson’s version of the future is rather brilliantly observed, and rather subtly nuanced. The world looks pretty much the same as it ever did, and the only real “science-fiction” touches we see are generally applied by bad guys to make the world even crappier than it was. In many ways, using time travel as a spring-pad, Looper is about wasting the power to change the world, and using to enforce the status quo.

According to Joe, the world is populated by “men just trying to figure out how far they’d go to keep what they have. That’s the only kind of man there is.” Loss (or the fear of loss) is one of the great motivators of the film. When Joe bungles his assignment, he seeks to right it in order to avoid losing everything he’s built up. His charge escapes, hoping to prevent the loss of his future happiness. Joe’s most aggressive pursuer is a mob enforcer who fears losing what little credibility and respect he has left. Even the ominous and mysterious sinister force brewing in the future – the so-called “Rainmaker”– is motivated by loss, if gossip is to be believed.

Killin’ time…

It’s clever stuff, and Johnson shrewdly avoids dwelling on the mechanics of time-travel. As far as the plot is concerned, we’re given enough information to understand what unfolds. History can be changed. As it is changed, the older!self sees memories crystalising of the new history. Damage done to a body in the present carries over into the future, as we learn early on in one brutally effective sequence. However, nobody seems to worry about causing the universe to collapse or anything like that.

Confronting his escaped target, Joe wants to understand the “rules” of the genre. His objective simply brushes the question off. “I’m not going to talk about time travel stuff,” he assures the audience as much as Joe. “We’d be here for hours and end up using straws to construct diagrams.” Johnson doesn’t want to tell that type of story, and doesn’t want to get bogged down in it. It’s a smart choice. As Joe’s employer moans at one point, “Time travel fries the brain.” He’s talking about one escaped mark, but he could be speaking about the audience. Looperkeeps the technical stuff simple, and is the stronger for it.

An average Joe?

There’s a lot of interesting gender stuff in Looper. In particular, fathers are curiously absent. When Joe’s target talks about his future wife starting a family, he’s more concerned with how she’d be as a mother – never touching on his role as a father. Joe himself mentions his mother in passing, and regrets being sold on to a bunch of guys. He’s in love with a prostitute struggling to provide for her son, and he stumbles across another mother and son while on the run.

While the men of Looper are consistently violent towards one another, and it seems that no real bonds of friendship exist between them (treachery comes naturally among old colleagues), the film suggests that women can bring out the best (and worst) in men. Joe won’t risk his savings for a colleague, but he’ll readily give it a lover to absolve his conscience. The man who escapes his execution is capable of doing terrible things in the name of the love of his life.

Back from the future?

It’s telling that the most developed female character – Sara – just wants to raise her son completely divorced from the harsh world run by men. The prostitute refuses Joe’s money, considering it to come with “strings” – she doesn’t want to get tied to his seedy and violent world. It’s a fascinating and interesting subtext to the film, and one which does an excellent job exploring the ramifications of a testosterone-driven culture.

Although Joe and his fellow “loopers” are gangsters, they seem more like another young demographic, one frequently characterised as criminals. Far from hiding in the shadow like a common crook, Joe drives a flash car (one of his colleagues buys a hoverbike) and wears a flash suit-and-tie. One of the establishing shots of the criminals’ headquarters reveals that there are police cars nearby. Everybody knows who the “loopers”are and what they do, but it seems they operate in a legally grey area rather than an outright illegal one. After all, you can’t murder somebody who doesn’t (meta-physically, at least) exist yet, right?

It’s a crime…

In a way, the “loopers” seem more akin to bankers than mobsters. We’re told that the country has massive vagrancy problems, and see that poverty still exists first-hand, yet these young turks are out having wild parties and spending huge sums of money on ridiculous things. We’re told that being one of these people is a career that is quite intensive while the individual is younger, and that they only do it for a set period of time before they are retired. Their last killing – “closing the loop” – is to murder themselves, effectively “cashing out.”

It evokes horror stories I’ve heard about people working in the financial sector, paying their dues by working obscene hours and slowly killing themselves for a bit of long-term financial security. Joe talks about entitlement and what he deserves – perhaps an argument that seems familiar in these troubling economic times when we discuss the bonuses at various financial services. The scenes of Joe and his friends “celebrating”evoke the scenes of early success in movies about those sorts of financial careers, where success and excess seem inherently linked. Paul Dano even has a douchebag eighties yuppie ponytail. Although perhaps I am reading too much into it.

Point blank…

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is great, and it’s fantastic to see him emerging as a leading actor in his own right. He plays well off Bruce Willis, and the pair make for an unlikely – yet strangely probable – dynamic. The rest of the supporting cast is also pretty fantastic. Paul Dano is great in a small role, Jeff Daniels is fun, and Emily Blunt works well as Sara. Johnson’s script wisely never loses track of its characters amid all the time travel shenanigans, and the cast work hard to make sure that everything is pretty clear at every point in the story.

Johnson also has a knack for constructing the story in a manner that is quite dense, but still easy to follow. The amount of information conveyed is quite impressive, but it’s more remarkable that the movie never feels too burdened by the exposition or the set-up. Johnson also does an excellent job when it comes to exploring particular events from different angles, where our reading of the situation might chance suddenly, but it is very clearly the same sequence.

Field of fire…

If the movie has a weakness, it is perhaps the fact that the temporal mechanics are a bit hazy. I know I praised it for not getting too bogged down, but there are points when the audience wonders why a particular course of action is not taken by the characters. An early example features the mob responding to a problem that would seem easy enough to rectify – their eventual solution feels a tad convoluted. There’s one or two smaller moments like that, but I can see why Johnson didn’t get too tied down in the particulars.

Still, Looper is smart, shrewd and sophisticated. It’s a triumph, and one that deserves to find an audience.

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