We live in a time in which overreaching types chirp about illusory import in tentpole pictures, as if these massive movies with overcompensating budgets are akin to down-on-their-luck paraplegics seeking strangers in the streets to buy them hot meals. Slate‘s Dana Stevens tells us that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy represents “war-on-terror allegories.” Mark Ruffalo explains to the Wall Street Journal that The Avengers, which is little more than a very pleasant popcorn movie, is a complex take on American life. While I’ve never shied away from expressing enthusiasm for genre or well-crafted mass entertainment, there is nevertheless a clear distinction between what Jon Favreau and what Alejandro Jodorowsky are trying to commit to film.
Yet Rian Johnson’s Looper won me over, despite a frustratingly paradoxical finale that contradicts two hours of story logic. Here is a film that isn’t just interested in entertaining, although I must confess that I was thrilled by one late scene in which Bruce Willis blew away a considerable number of baddies. (When it comes to satisfying on-screen violence, I’m just as redblooded as the next guy.) Much as the underrated Daybreakers took care in establishing a consequential world (complete with homeless vampires holding cardboard signs which read STARVING NEED BLOOD), Looper is smart enough to understand that a good time travel movie is all about the peripheral deets. The Back to the Future trilogy remains a repeat viewing draw because we wonder if Doc Brown ever really said, “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” (He doesn’t, despite the characters crediting him as the source.) Then there are complicated films like Shane Carruth’s excellent Primer, which contains so many interpretive possibilities that one can easily get lost in its low-budget, high-concept Chinese box.
Looper contains a narrative we’ll eventually figure out. We learn that Joseph Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a “looper” who kills time travelers with a blunderbuss a mere instant after they appear out of nowhere upon a blue trap. These fidgety executions establish an inconsequential tone, which allows us to ponder why Joe’s in this line of work. Isn’t Arby’s still hiring? Surely, given the film’s barely touched steak and eggs specials, there’s a need for crappy roast beef sandwiches in the year 2044. But the career is lucrative, although paper currency is nowhere to be found. (Has the dollar collapsed?) Joe’s saving up his silver bars for a post-killing life. He’s learning French. He keeps time to an old watch. He cannot let these time travelers escape. We learn that in thirty years someone will kill him. All part of the job.
This is a somewhat silly setup. If you think about it, a looper has to accept on faith that the future is fixed (we understand that time travel is forbidden because of a dangerous criminal syndicate, but, if it’s so problematic, why doesn’t anyone track down the guy who developed it?). A looper has to accept that the people who run the operation (this includes a grizzly gray-bearded Jeff Daniels) can be trusted. This is probably why Johnson has made Joseph somewhat dissolute. He wastes his hours with the inventive aesthetic of drugs he can plop into his eye with an eye dropper. That’s certainly less messy than panics in Needle Park.
I’m giving Johnson a hard time, but he does manage to get performances from his cast. Bruce Willis, with a strangely satisfying fixed hairline this time around, juggles intensity and contrition as “Old Joe,” the guy that Joseph Gordon-Levitt grows up to be (despite the two actors sharing quite different ears). I’m not the greatest Emily Blunt fan, but I’ll take her firing bullets into the cornfields. There’s an incredible kid with fierce eyes named Pierce Gagnon who will probably go places, assuming that he doesn’t end up as some former child star shooting up in a seedy motel during his early adult years. Even Garrett Dillahunt, the quirky and misunderstood character actor who was the goofy T-888 in The Sarah Connor Chronicles, shows up endearingly befuddled. I don’t feel any particular need to describe the plot. Let others do that. It’s basically a showdown between Joe and Old Joe, with some twists coming late in the film. We get telekinesis and a number of impressive jet cycles. Geeky shorthand for the ADD crowd.
What impressed me about Looper was the way it depicts a future where today’s everyday conveniences are missing. Some unknown upheaval has gone down between 2012 and 2044. The world here is a barely civilized place waiting to be overrun by desperate crooks. Touchpad technology is hidden behind secret panels. Smartphones have transformed into barely functioning squares, largely used by the loopers, and nobody whips these out while walking the streets. We see tents and homeless encampments on the outskirts of cities, with the word “vagrant” taking on a sinister tone. The unemployed have clearly expanded to include a larger and more invisible class of humanity, and I liked how the film made the daring choice of following those who were well off, further suggesting that one had to become terribly amoral to have a nice house. There are makeshift solar panels haphazardly affixed to cars (and at least one farmhouse) without any clear standard. And when you consider the black tubing leading to where a truck’s gas tank used to be, you figure that there was some last-ditch effort to respond to a fossil fuel crisis. The loopers get the flashy sports cars. The jet cycles go to the authorities. The losers don’t even get a set of steak knives.
And yet somehow it’s possible to keep a diner operating in the middle of nowhere. It’s still possible to maintain a farm with helpful insecticide-sprinkling robots. There are still upscale nightclubs kept alive by the looper class. I liked that the film offered no reasons for any of this, even as it resolved the main plot like some half-baked episode of Time Trax. It doesn’t really matter what time we live in. Looper makes its own case for human connection and sacrifice, but it also suggests that the larger world is more fixed and unstoppable than we realize. Shouldn’t we get down to the business of living rather than seeing what fits the given mood?