September 28, 2012


[This is a repost of my review from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.  Looper opens today.]

Sacrifice goes against our biological imperative of self-preservation. If we have a will to survive, then shouldn’t we do everything in our power to stay alive? Or is life only worth living if it’s the good life (whatever that means)? Shouldn’t we celebrate our desire to live? Rian Johnson‘s sci-fi film Looper casts a dark spell over our need for self-preservation, and bitterly twists it into a world where people would go so far as to kill themselves to live. Anchored by tremendous performances from leads Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, Johnson manages to deliver thrills as intense as the ideas he wishes to explore. However, his quest to reach a thoughtful conclusion stumbles over new characters, plot shortcuts, and an extreme tonal shift that leaves the big ideas intact, but fractures the powerful storytelling.

Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is a looper—a hitman in the year 2044 who kills people from thirty years in the future who are sent back through illegal time travel. It’s a tidy execution method for future crime syndicates: send him back, kill him, and then there’s no proof a body ever existed. But there’s a catch: because loopers know the system, they’re a loose end, and one day they’ll be sent back in time to be quickly executed by their younger selves. Joe and his fellow loopers are okay with this exchange. After they kill their future selves, they’re rewarded handsomely, and get to live out their final thirty years in relative comfort. Joe doesn’t mind his daily routine of wake-up, assassinate, get paid, party, get high, and go to sleep. But then he breaks the cardinal rule, and lets his target escape. It’s bad enough for Joe to have a guy from the future running around. It’s worse when it’s his future self (Willis).


For its first-half, everything in Looper clicks together perfectly. The notion of self-preservation permeates every action. The movie wrestles with the concept of life’s potential. Haven’t the loopers drained their lives of potential by giving it a firm end date? They have no problem taking away the lives of others, and they’re supposed to be surprised when they’ve killed themselves (with the exception of Old Joe, the victims always arrive bound and hooded). The loopers are forced to live in the moment because they know how much time they have left, but it’s not much of a moment. Young Joe is stuck in his own loop: kill, get paid, party, rinse, repeat. Life’s potential doesn’t have much meaning if you’re always squandering that potential.

Before the movie shifts its tone, Johnson crafts a tight and heady action flick where the chase is wrapped up in fatalism and self-doubt. The movie drips with Young Joe’s noirish dialogue, and we see a broken city that’s overrun with crime and vagrants. It’s not a dystopian future; just an ugly one. Johnson shows us the horrific fate that befalls a looper if he lets his future self escape like when it happens to Young Joe’s friend, Seth (Paul Dano). It’s in this world where both Joes are being chased by “Gats”, the black trench-coated henchmen of crime boss Abe (Jeff Daniels), that Looper is at its strongest. There’s dangerous urgency where both Joes have a valid reason to survive—but doesn’t everyone?


To get into the meat of that question, Johnson has to go to a disturbing place in the second half, but he also flips the tone to where the immediacy of that question has to vie for attention against what feels almost like a different movie. In his quest to kill his future self and escape from the gats, Young Joe hides on a farm owned by Sarah (Emily Blunt). She lives there with her young, and slightly “off” son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon). 10% of the future population has a weak telekinesis (they can float small objects in the palm of their hand), and the Sarah and Cid are among them. Like the vagrants, “TK” (as it’s called in the film) seems like a little coloring to the world until Johnson has to use it as an all-purpose escape route that cheapens the tightness of the storytelling and therefore cheapens the themes.

The urgency of these ideas and their complexity begin to fade when we’re on the idyllic farm. Old Joe keeps the themes alive, but Young Joe drudgingly carries the story on the farm with Sarah and Cid. Thankfully, the film’s momentum is kept alive by the strength of the cinematography, the editing, and most importantly, the compelling performances from Gordon-Levitt and Willis. On a weaker actor, the young-Willis make-up would be a distraction, but with Gordon-Levitt, it allows him to fade away into the character. We truly believe that both Joes are the same soft-spoken, secretly scared man whose purpose in life is killing to survive. As for Willis, Old Joe is, simply put, one of the best performances of his career. He has to resent his younger self and carry thirty more years of life experience, but not feel like a completely different person. It’s a dance between the two actors even when they’re not sharing the screen.


The impetus of the story and the succor of the performances manage to keep Looper out of its biggest trouble: plot holes. They’re almost an inevitability of the time-travel genre, and even the script acknowledges their presence. Old Joe tells his younger self that they could discuss the intricacies until they’re blue-in-the-face, but that’s not the point. Audience members are welcome to dwell on the glaring holes in the script, but they’ll miss what makes Looper special.

In its finest moments, Looper is sci-fi at the genre’s best, and it will leave your head spinning. The richness of the story and Johnson’s skillful direction make it impossible not to be a little let down when the film breaks in two. But the fracture is a necessary sacrifice in order to reach the conclusion’s full potential. The movie may lose some of its vivacity by not sticking to its strongest elements, but as Looper reminds us, potential can be far more powerful than preservation.

Rating: B


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  • Dmitriy O.

    Spoilers Ahead*************

    So this is another one of those plot holes I guess, but if anyone has an idea on how this possibly makes sense, I’d love to hear it. When Young Joe is lets Old Joe escape, goes to his apartment, then falls and snaps back to the moment of waiting for what will be Old Joe, how the hell does that make sense? Any idea on why Johnson/the writer chose to make that flash-forward scene be exactly what actually happens? How does Young Joe, who’s at the “beginning of the 30-year loop” see what happens?

    Aside from that, I enjoyed the movie. Certainly makes you think. That little kid was like a telekinetic Dexter sans Harry.

    • will

      As Dmitriy O. said, SPOILERS AHEAD.

      I think you misread the scene. You’re talking about when we flashforward after Joe falls off the fire escape, right? We were seeing the scene, and the events that led to it, from Old Joe’s perspective. We saw how Gordon-Levitt became Willis, and how he arrived irregularly in the past. Then, we saw everything that happened after he escaped his loop-closing from his perspective.

      • Dmitriy O.

        That’s pretty strange that we all of a sudden see that flash-forward scene from Old Joe’s perspective, since he hasn’t entered the picture yet. When he falls and it snaps back to Young Joe waiting for him, it seems to pick up the story again right before Old Joe enter’s the movie. So seeing his perspective at that juncture doesn’t have continuity with what we had seen on screen up to that point. If it had snapped back to Old Joe already being in the scene, it would make much more sense. But it does make sense that it’s Old Joe’s POV. Thanks.

    • Anonymous

      Wasn’t seeing it… it was just the moment in the movie when the director decided to switch focus to Old Joe’s story about how we got to this point — then right after we pick up and see what happened when he fell…

  • Chad

    Another film with good ideas wasted on a mediocre script. Really awful acting by Blunt and her horrible child, and the “willis” makeup is so bad and distracting, it actually makes JGL look less like Willis than if they just lat him go natural. Forst half is okay, but like everyone is saying, the second half falls apart embarrassingly fast, and becomes Terminator meets Witness meets Field of Dreams meets The Omen.

    • Kevin

      This is the dumbest thing I’ve read all week.

    • TimG

      Disagree completely, this movie deserves much more praise. JGL carried this movie to being a really incredible film, especially the farm scenes. If anything the weakest part of this movie is Willis’s performance, which seemed too one-dimensional.

    • Tim

      the kid was spectacular. have you ever tried to get a kid to act? what johnson was able to do with him was extraordinary.

      not to mention that blunt, who is ALWAYS great, was, once again, great.

      i mean this in the nicest way: your taste exists in an alternate universe.

    • DestinBlond

      I’m wondering if you and I even saw the same movie…sheesh.

  • christian

    The most average movie of the year. It had all the same characters with the same character arcs as Drive! A mob boss after a stoic young male who had a job go wrong. The stoic young male protects a single mother and her child. The male protects the child and mother and sacrifices himself. Boring. I saw the ending five minutes into the movie.

    • John Q. Public

      hey shithead, did you just give away the ending to Drive?

      • christian

        Just for you

  • Henrikus

    It’s true, I love the settings and concepts. Superb acting from JGL and Willis. There’s only one thing which bothers me about the movie. The time travel theory in looper, I’m not sure if it is about the timeline.

    Did the old Joe’s actions will alter the timeline or create a new parallel timeline? In the first scene, they show the timeline where Young Joe (1st) killed Old Joe (1st) and lives in China. I assume they have a parallel timeline since Old Joe (1st) isn’t affected after Young Joe (2nd) didn’t manage to kill him. But Old Joe (1st) is affected when Young Joe (2nd) does another different actions (hence the memory replacement).

    So maybe Old Joe (1st) is still connected with Young Joe (2nd). However it doesn’t make sense that Rainmaker was ‘born’ because of Old Joe (1st)’s action to kill Sara since Rainmaker was on 1st timeline (we don’t know the reason why or how). Old Joe was killed by Young Joe in the 1st timeline, so the Rainmaker isn’t related to Old Joe at all.

    I wish they could have different cut or alternate ending for the movie.

    • Yeti Murphy

      shut up

  • matt elam

    So does anyone have any theories on the signifigance of Emilly Blunt rubbing JGL’s hair like his mother did? Am i reading too much into it?! ANSWERS!

  • Chris

    The plot holes are pretty unforgivable. You can’t kill people in the future…. except for Joe’s woman?

    This wasn’t just abysmal sci-fi, it was an terribly written and executed film.

  • Chris

    The plot holes are pretty unforgivable. You can\’t kill people in the future…. except for Joe\’s woman?

    This wasn\’t just abysmal sci-fi, it was an terribly written and executed film.

  • Cat

    The shooting of Joe’s wife was an accident and the ‘bad guys’ burned down the house in desperation to try and make it look like arson.
    The whole capture of old Joe was a muck-up from start to finish, which is what led to him being able to turn up in 2044 without being bound or having his face covered.

    Presumably the murder of his wife would, in the future, cause an investigation and possibly bring about the discovery of the gang using the illegal time-travel, but we don’t get to know what happened afterwards as there was no Joe to ‘narrate’ it for us…

  • Cat

    The shooting of Joe\’s wife was an accident and the \’bad guys\’ burned down the house in desperation to try and make it look like arson.
    The whole capture of old Joe was a muck-up from start to finish, which is what led to him being able to turn up in 2044 without being bound or having his face covered.

    Presumably the murder of his wife would, in the future, cause an investigation and possibly bring about the discovery of the gang using the illegal time-travel, but we don\’t get to know what happened afterwards as there was no Joe to \’narrate\’ it for us…

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