I loved Brick, Rian Johnson's 2005 directorial debut and his first collaboration with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Hard-boiled noir in a high school setting is such an incongruous combination, but good gravy Johnson made it work and gave us one of the most clever and original films of that decade. I confess to having missed The Brothers Bloom, his second film; reviews I read gave me the impression that it was a well-done if unoriginal caper flick, and while I like those just fine, they're not something I go out of my way to catch. Science fiction, on the other hand, is just the kind of thing I'm very eager to watch, and I was very pumped for Johnson's foray into time-travel sci-fi. And for another thing, Gordon-Levitt is in it, and it seems like that guy just can't make a bad movie.
And this time - with Johnson - he's made one of the best time-travel movies of all time.
In 2044, there is a new breed of criminal known as "loopers". Their job is to murder people sent back from the future of 2074, when time travel has been invented and is only used by major crime syndicates. Eventually, one of the people they kill will be themself from the future, indicating that they've "closed their loop" and have the next 30 years to enjoy their riches. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one such looper, and he sees first hand what his boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) and Abe's hired thug Kid Blue (Noah Segan) will do to a looper who fails to kill his future self - namely, Joe's friend Seth (Paul Dano). Thus, when Joe's own future self (Bruce Willis) appears and escapes, Young Joe desperately tries to hunt Old Joe down and kill him. But Old Joe has his own reasons for coming to the past, which involve an isolated farm inhabited by a woman named Sara (Emily Blunt) and her preternaturally intelligent young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon).
What impressed me most about Brick was how self-assured it was. For a film by a first-time writer-director and featuring a premise that sounds ridiculous on paper, it displayed a remarkable confidence in itself and that its central conceit would work. (And work it did.) That confidence and self-assurance is on display in Looper as well; take, for instance, the part when Old Joe first appears in 2044 and escapes his younger self's grasp. The very next scene is Young Joe killing his future self in an apparent repeat of what we've just seen, only with a different outcome. This initial "Huh?" moment is followed by a montage of how Joe spends the next 30 years of his "retirement" in Shanghai, and how he eventually meets his wife (Qing Xu). And in the middle of this montage, Gordon-Levitt becomes Bruce Willis, simultaneously establishing that Old Joe and Young Joe are the same person as well as marking the distinction between them. The entire sequence is a flashback from Old Joe's point of view - and the way we switch between both Joes' POVs is yet another narrative trick that Johnson employs with aplomb.
Because this is essentially an action thriller in which the hero and villain are the same person - and a none-too-heroic person at that. For much of the movie, it isn't clear whether it's Old Joe or Young Joe whom we should root for; both of them are at times pretty unlikable, and at one point one of them crosses a major moral horizon in a shocking manner. Imagine how a lesser writer or filmmaker would've handled such a premise; in fact, don't imagine, it's been done. It's arguably as much a character study as it is a sci-fi action thriller, delving deep into the psychology of Old and Young Joe - again, the same person. Such a focus on character is rare for this genre, and the time travel premise gives it an innovative new spin; Old Joe dealing with the fallout of his younger self's actions, Young Joe trying to avoid his older self's fate. Themes of destiny, free will and morality intertwine, and ultimately resolve in a marvelously satisfying climax. Seriously, I was open-mouthed in shock at the ending - shock that quickly turned into awe at how great an ending it was.
Oh, did I mention there's telekinesis in this movie? Why no, I didn't in the synopsis above, so I shall discuss it here. Yes, this is a future in which 10% of the population are born with telekinetic abilities, albeit limited to simple parlour tricks - hence it is treated as another mundane part of life in dystopian 2044. (And yes, it is dystopian, as Johnson wisely shows but never outright tells; there are roving gangs of murderous vagrants in almost every street, while criminals like Joe and his fellow loopers flaunt their wealth above it all. Which adds economic inequality to its themes.) Some have criticised it as an unnecessary and tacked-on element, but they're wrong; throwing telekinesis into a time-travel action thriller is yet another daring decision by Johnson that he pulls off with that same self-assurance. It turns out Cid is a telekinetic, which adds an even greater sense of unpredictable danger to the tense climactic confrontation set entirely on Sara's and Cid's farm. Without telekinesis in the mix, that entire sequence would be much less thrilling and suspenseful.
It's almost a cliché by now to praise Joseph Gordon-Levitt's acting. He wears prosthetic makeup meant to make him look like a young Bruce Willis, and it's a credit to both his talent and the makeup artist that the prosthetics do not drown his performance. It's also been reported that he deliberately mimicked Willis' mannerisms, which I did not notice, but which I certainly will when I get this film on DVD - particularly in the diner scene between Young Joe and his older self. Willis' current career alternates between paycheck roles and parts in which he gets to display his real acting chops, and this is one of the latter. But frankly, I thought they were both overshadowed by two of their co-stars. Emily Blunt is fantastic here, playing the tough yet vulnerable, frightened yet warm single mother Sara, one of the most sympathetic heroines of the year. (She's also one of very few sexually aggressive heroines - yet another example of Johnson breaking convention because he knows he can do it well.) And Pierce Gagnon is revelatory. I couldn't believe he's 10 years old; his delivery of his precociously eloquent dialogue makes Cid sound half his age, and his incredibly controlled performance gives the character layers beyond the Creepy Child trope and bespeaks a talent beyond his years.
And there's also Jeff Daniels' laidback mob boss Abe, and his pathetically ineffectual lackey Kid Blue - both of whom tease possibilities that, this being about time travel and all, they might turn out to be more important than they seem. (Abe is in fact from the future, and he gets the movie's funniest line when he tells Joe which country to spend his retirement in.) And there's the virtuouso scene that shows us, in stunningly gruesome-yet-bloodless detail, what happens to a looper who fails to close his loop. Yes, this one gets a 4-½-star rating all right, only the third one I'm giving out this year. It damn well is one of the best time-travel movies ever. It's clever, inventive, humanistic and thought-provoking, yet never forgets that it's also an action thriller. And all pulled off with equal amounts skill and surety by Johnson. Rian Johnson, man. Look out for this guy. If Looper's success - modest, but nothing to be ashamed of - vaults him out of the indie realm and into big-budget studio projects, the future looks like something worth looking forward to.
NEXT REVIEW: Skyfall
Expectations: sky high!