Friday 28 September 2012
(Rian Johnson, 2012) With his third film, writer-director Johnson goes up a gear or two. Looper is a tremendously assured science fiction thriller; original, clever and brilliantly made, it surpasses most of this years crop of Hollywood genre cinema, and most of any years, to be honest. The first act is a zippy half hour, dense with incident and wittily slipping in tons of exposition without too much pain. In voiceover, Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) explains that, in this near future world, he is a "Looper", an assassin who kills people sent back from the future by the mob. He goes alone to a field, armed with a blunderbuss, at the appointed time, and he waits. A figure suddenly appears, hooded, and Joe shoots them dead, takes the silver bars strapped to their back as payment, and disposes of the body. Time travel has not been invented yet, but it is already influencing the course of his life. That worsens when he is confronted with an older version of himself (Bruce Willis) who has come back specifically to find the younger version of a future crimelord - the legendary Rainmaker - to kill him as a child. Future Joe's presence in the past/present sends both Joes on the run from Abe (Jeff Daniels) each trying to survive and guarantee their own future as they see it. That first half hour establishes this future world as a gritty, degraded version of our own. Vagrants fill the streets, cars run on battered solar panels stuck to their bonnets and roofs, and law and order seems largely negligible. This is all subtly portrayed with detail and texture, and the action kicks in with a jolt of pace. Johnson skilfully does all this without ever sacrificing his characters - there are few cyphers here, with even Paul Dano as Joe's doomed friend Seth and Piper Perabo as his favoured prostitute given telling little grace notes in their scenes. Jeff Daniels, meanwhile, reunited with Gordon Levitt after their excellent work together in the underrated The Lookout, is quietly scary but almost likeable as Abe, a mobster from the future who prefers words to violence. The film changes gear thereafter, settling in at an isolated farmhouse where a young woman (Emily Blunt, nicely combining strength with fragility) is determined to protect her young son and Joe awaits his final showdown with his older self. Their storyline provides a contrasting emotional strand to that of Willis, clinging to his memories of a dead wife while young Joe's actions mess with his mind. Johnson keeps the potentially complex time travel paradox plotting clear though never less than fascinating, and concentrates on his characters and the issues of choice and free will they face, without ever stinting on spectacle. His plotting is nifty and intelligent in its consistent ability to deliver surprises that seem, in retrospect, to be the only way things could have gone, and his direction is stylish but filled with strong, clean storytelling. There is also a quite appealing strain of nastiness working its way through this story. The sort of gee-whiz ideas common in time travel stories are given a bloodthirsty spin. A Looper returned from the future is captured through his younger self when mobsters begin to amputate body parts and he finds himself suddenly lacking fingers, a nose, legs. The fact that ten percent of the population has some low-level telekinesis means that when we encounter a character with a high-level version of the power, more or less the first thing Johnson has him do is explode somebody. The brutality with which everybodytreats vagrants feels convincingly frank and only adds to the coarse, damaged texture of this world. Perhaps most impressive is the use of Willis here. For the first time in years, a film has made interesting use of his onscreen persona - he was always one action hero with a little more to him - and specific appeal, and he responds with a fine performance. He and Gordon Levitt - who is equally good - have a single, brilliant scene where they talk things over in a diner, the tensions and strain between them bubbling over in some sharply scripted dialogue. Not quite the transcendent masterpiece some have claimed, then, but Looper is still great, utterly satisfying genre filmmaking which marks the newfound maturity of a young American auteur.