[Review] - Looper

Courtesy of FilmDistrict
I spent all summer being disappointed by my own expectations. Either the films were sub-par, or they weren't what I thought they were going to be. It is rare for a film to be the latter, and actually improve my opinion of the film. There was a moment early on in Looper, I can't remember when exactly, probably the scene where Joe and Kid Blue compare weapons, when I realised that this film isn't a science fiction movie. It's a western.

That realisation elevated the movie for me, as though I were watching it through new eyes. Because as a science fiction film, it's very well made, but doesn't really have anything new to say with it's subject matter. But as a western, it's a better film. It's a more daring film. It found a new way to tell the standard western story, like putting siding on an old house.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that seek to destroy themselves.

I have spoken of my love of time travel before. As a narrative device, I'm a sucker. I'll see anything that promises some timey-whimey action, if only to see how they approach the philosophical and metaphysical concepts. Some hand wave them away, while others embrace it heartily. Looper falls somewhere in the middle, not wanting to think too hard about the problem, but occasionally revelling in it. It's a hard balance, but one I feel Looper pulls off.

By now, most people know the plot, as the trailers and the TV promos have explained. Joe (Joesph Gordon-Levitt) is an assassin working for a criminal enterprise in the future. Then send people back in time, and he kills them, thus eliminating the evidence. These folks are called Loopers because when their services are no longer required, they themselves get sent back, and killed by their younger versions. It's called closing the loop. It's a tidy way to make certain there are no loose ends. Except, occasionally, the elder version gets away. That's bad, for reasons that are never exactly clear. Why not just let the older version live out their days in the past?

It's a simple idea dressed up as high concept. But really, the only thing high concept about it is the time travel mechanics. Some people, no matter how clearly it's laid out for them, just can't wrap their heads around the idea of a younger and older version of the same person existing at once. Too far outside of the norm, I guess. Or they just can't think fourth dimensionally.

Using the framework of a western, the crime ridden city of 2044 is just an impoverished town on the edge of civilisation, ruled by the crime boss (a delightfully underplayed Jeff Daniels). In this city, he is the law, until the drifter comes to town. Except, in this story, the drifter is from the future, and was one of the crime boss' posse. It's a good half way through the film before Gordon-Levitt's Joe takes on a (slightly) more heroic role. And it's about that time that Bruce Willis' Joe becomes more of the villain. It should be noted that no one wears hats in this film, but if they did, they'd all be black. There isn't a selfless person among them. Every action, taken by every character, is dictated by either greed, revenge, of self preservation. The closest the movie comes to having a noble intention is Emily Blunt's character, who just wants to protect her son.

Bruce Willis has admitted that the marketing of the film is deceptive. If nothing else, it features him quite prominently. In the actual film, he's much more a secondary role, the threat of his intention more dominating then his physical presence. The bulk of the film is actually the very western story of a lone outcast protecting a woman and her son from outlaws and crooked lawmen. And that is a movie that is, according to Hollywood, unsellable. Especially considering that it lacks romance of any kind, which was a delightful change. In fact, conventions seem to be something this movie welcoming skews. If there is a standard way of doing things, this movie tends towards not. The ending especially is not what you'd expect, but fits, and really is the only way it could have ended. It's an ending that satisfies.

The movie isn't perfect. The voice over exposition feels forced, but there isn't much of it. The supporting cast rely mostly on one or two personality quirks, and ride out the rest of the film on those. The flash forward, detailing Joe's life and transformation from Gordon-Levitt into Willis is brief, and never really makes you feel for Old Joe, or gives satisfactory sympathy to encourage his actions. But where it works, it excels. The performances are top notch, no matter how shallow the characters, with Willis better here (and actually seeming like he cares) then he has been in years. Special credit goes to Pierce Gagnon, as Cid, who fills his role with the right amount of malice, and considering he is only a small child makes it all the more impressive. Daniels too, is a stand out in his few scenes, and can I just say how much a fan I am of the move towards casting actors like him, and Bryan Cranston as major film villains. The effects don't draw attention to themselves, which I appreciate, especially the time travel effects, which are usually the ones you have to look out for. Here, they opted to go with largely off camera instantaneous changes rather then slow dissolves (I credit the involvement of Shane Carruth with this, writer and director of the best time travel movie ever, Primer).

Writer and director Rian Johnson has made something really very good here, and I feel sorry for him. Christopher Nolan made a film much more complicated, and which arguably holds together worse then this, and it got the prime summer release date a few years back. Looper is no less deserving of the treatment Inception received, but because it lacked the name recognition, it was exiled to September, a time traditionally reserved for films that studios aren't certain how they will play. Johnson, based on his small output, deserves greater recognition from here on out. His name needs to illicit immediate reaction, rather then a Google search. He has made a movie that is intelligent, never backs off for the sake of marketability or audience alienation, and demands rewatching on it's own merits, not because the viewer might have missed something. Could it, and the aforementioned Inception be the opening salvo in a new resurgence of intelligent genre films, made to challenge the audience rather then coddle it? I doubt it, but it could at the very least lead to having one exceptionally good film released in the barrens of the yearly schedule each year. I'd more then welcome that.

Looper isn't the best time travel movie ever made, nor is it the best western. Nor is it even the best time travel western. But it's damned close to the top of that list.

Oh, and I'm definitely of the belief that Kid Blue and Abe were the same person.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


  1. Just stumbled upon this post from the past through the Continuum S2 Finale post - Nice roundup btw!! I guess above you wanted to refer to the (excellent) time travel movie "Primer" ;-) .. Was it a Freudian slip or the lack of romance in Looper to cause that typo? Regards, ksjazz

    1. What, you don't think the hidden message of an Uma Thrman rom-com is that time travel caused all those "hilarious" misunderstandings?

      Or that, occasionally, I'm just as lazy an editor of my content as I am a writer. Because I could go either way. Error noted and fixed. Thank you for letting me know.