[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.