Rian Johnson‘s most exceptional mind bender flick “Looper” feels like the perfect blend of familiar and refreshingly different. While it treads dangerously close to common grounds, thankfully, almost defiantly in drives home the adage that less really is more when it comes to films about time travel. Johnson’s second film (his first, Brick) straddles sameitude with all the gusto of a blood spattered, fresh-faced Tarantino before he became a pop culture junkie hooked on the smack of parody, strung out on satire and obsessed with testifying to the choir of popular opinion. Unlike many recent films on the subject of cyclical altered reality featuring charismatic but deeply flawed anti-heroes, this story is supported by practical effects (e.g actors suspended on wires in the actual environment rather than using a green screen) and longer scenes that give us more time to know the characters not just their duty to plot. Even with a complex story line the narrative is understandable and only requires a modicum of narration and little to no exposition. For exposition laden storytelling and needless coddling see my thoughts on Nolan’s Inception and/or my review of Duncan Jones‘ Source Code. Here, the editing supports the action rather than creates it and the dialog furthers both story and character without becoming merely a vehicle of plot and circumstances. The only thing wrong with Looper is that Johnson goes no further than a precursory PG-13 scene of sex and sensuality. It is unclear why an R rated film about identity, isolation, and desperation is so devoutly clerical. This is not about blatant nudity or gratuitous interlocked bodies but necessary moments in the midst of so much collateral emotional wreckage.
You really should watch this film at your first opportunity but plan on at least a second viewing, preferably soon thereafter. Looper treats you like an adult fully capable of figuring things out while confidently embracing genre splicing without resorting to gimmickry and whiz bammery. Such other film efforts fail because the gimmick wears old, the cool look begins to pale over time, the run time exceeds necessity. Johnson pays mindful homage fueled by ‘less really is more’ in the capable hands of a storyteller who knows that nothing can replace a good script or augment, really, good old fashion acting. They say the camera does not lie and when you lie to it you might as well flip on one of those Hollywood search lights and project your whimpering doubt to the heavens – or at least a fat, fluffy cloud for all to see.
Concept films like Hollywood blockbusters tend to talk a lot, too much really, flooded with lots of cuts and sloppy camera work to hide waxen expressions and over modulated, under prepared actors and directors. If you know where to look you can find the green screen blur lines and cut-along-the-perfs textbook setups and tear downs. This is what happens when idea films are little more than makeshift heroes and end of the world get out while you can trials and tribulations – just so you can see stuff niftily blown up. There’s the obligatory voice over and topsy-turvy exposition like molten lead shoes sucking the soles off over paid feet. Five minutes in, two minutes before you know everything about where you’re going, including why the gimmick wears thin, repeats, gets thinner, snaps like a piano string only duller, more of a thump like the sound of your thumb on the other side of your popcorn bucket. Then there’s a film like Looper that achieves in silence and composition what the rest seem destined to do over and over again, poorly, reminding you there is hope after all that Hollywood won’t go down as long as there are a few who will shuck the norm and reward the audience.
It’s the little things really that add up to monumental accomplishments, lingering on a long shot, stutter-step out of breath, perfect cast giving perfect glances kinda like method but not, some kind of new truthful often lost in commercial films only to be magnified in films like Looper. We wonder why films aren’t better acted, while stories can’t be smart and funny and shiny all at once or one at a time, staccato pace as long as they just keep coming. You can’t get anywhere in this film without marveling at the acting and from everyone. Bruce Willis has never been better and even as it is impossible to detach him from his many successes and failures, he lives and breathes images of Pulp Fiction, 12 Monkeys and Die Hard – none of which takes away and only adds to the performances. Jeff Daniels needs more work like this, more opportunity to get really pissed off and channel it in inky stained rooms full of dank, harsh scenarios bludgeoned with sensory overload. Deep down in such dungeons he is mean, he is real, he relishes every failed career move and terribly indifferent movie critic. Emily Blunt too should do bad more often, so convincing her hard lines as her feminine curves, the gentle touch of her hand on her exposed thigh is almost enough but never is. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has made me a believer. I’ll follow him anywhere after this. I’ve been a fan of Garret Dillahunt since The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford and he’ll continue to do great things. Perhaps the most startling and frightening performance is by the child star Pierce Gagnon who really does steal up every moment of his scenes with any of the actors. He’ll be one to watch again and again as his star rises and Hollywood opens up to him. So resolute and commanding in tone and expression, so lively in the seconds between the seconds, his abilities test the very frames of his scenes, hungry for more, refusing to settle for less.
These believable performances are the earmark of award-winning smiles and concentrated inner worlds filled with desperate voices instead of the familiar veneer of hokey acting. Looper is that rare treat that has actually accumulated high marks in the aggregators, positive tallies and machined recommendations. It’s refreshing to find a film that seems so effortless in the way so many others ought to be, compelling because it’s familiar territory populated with impressive actors given the chance to be so much greater than the sum of their roles. This gives instead of meanders in place, not the kind of cheap carbon copy amiss you’re getting by the bucket load from lesser filmmakers. Looper takes us along for the ride with actors we’ve been celebrating since the first Die Hard and long before dream thieves gave Joseph Gordon-Levitt staying power.
Good films make it look easy and thank us for our patience, appreciation and willingness to still be surprised and entertained like it were the first time all over again. Good films start off good and get better in the middle ground between what we want and what we expect, enlivened by surprises, emboldened through the specificity of minutiae. Looper connects characters with our dreams and misdemeanors, our willingness to let our guards down just long enough to be encouraged by smart, witty and bold. Once there we find the link that we’ll follow through and through, the connection that holds characters in and out of hell longer than we figure and better for it. It is there in these fleeting moments that a film makes or breaks from the crowd, gives and rewards or takes it all away, the same only worse, different but not enough to matter. Because Rian Johnson respects our ability to hang on and give a damn why, Looper astounds us well after the credits scrawl, leaving us wanting more and looking forward to starting over.
- Looper (2012) (canadiancinephile.com)
- Written Interview: Rian Johnson (“Looper”) (gointothestory.blcklst.com)
- LOOPER – Must Watch Deleted Scene (geektyrant.com)
- Jason Reitman Pushes Rian Johnson’s ‘Looper’ For Best Original Screenplay Nod (slashfilm.com)
- DVD reviews: ‘Looper,’ ‘The Words’ and ‘Cosmopolis’ (triblive.com)
- 5 Reasons to Grab ‘Looper’ On DVD or Blu-Ray (contactmusic.com)
- How LOOPER Should Have Ended (geektyrant.com)