Looper is one of those “mind-bending” thrillers that comes out every few years, like Memento, Inception, The Machinist, Source Code, Fight Club, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Matrix, Donnie Darko, Brazil, eXistenZ—less of a genre (some are mysteries, some sci-fi, some fantasy, some dramas, some comedies, some are even romances) than a philosophy (the viewer should be excited by never knowing exactly what is real, and delighted as the pieces of the puzzle eventually fall together).
Theses movies work when their conceptual premises reflect some ordinary psychological process (the desire to forget painful experiences—Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—, the insight that you’ve been sleep-walking through your life unaware of the true parameters of existence—The Matrix—, the thrill of tearing the thin veneer of polite society off your animal nature—Fight Club). They work well when the other aspects of the story aren’t neglected—when there are interesting characters in compelling situations, when the dialogue is well-written and the acting is engaging—the nuts and bolts of a fun time at the movies no matter what the genre or the philosophy. Inception is a good example of how bad things turn out when you ingnore the nuts and bolts.
Looper works on the latter front—there are some well-written scenes with tense dialogue, scenes that would work just as well on stage with minimal sets and props. And the acting is exemplary. I’ve long believed that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is our best young actor, since his brilliant triptych of leading roles in Mysterious Skin, Brick, and The Lookout—three of the finest performances this decade on film. It’s hard to believe this is the silly alien teenager from TV’s 3rd Rock from the Sun—but maybe he absorbed some John Lithgow magic from those days, because he burst onto the big screen with mad skills and wild abandon—very Lithgowesque!
Bruce Willis and Jeff Daniels impress us in smaller roles and the women, too, shine: Emily Blunt, Piper Perabo, and Qing Xu. The acting is so good that you hardly notice that all the roles are severely underwritten. Despite the writer’s ability to craft some tense interactions in the moment, he hasn’t been able to give the human scale of the picture any through-line. What exactly is Gordon-Levitt’s character anyway? We know his job—he’s a hitman. We know a little about his background—his mother gave him up, a mob-boss mentored him—and we see him revealed as an addict, as the kind of person who would choose money over his best friend’s safety. But none of those things are explored, allowed to have ramifications, nor are the contributing factors revealed.
And yet, Gordon-Levitt gives us a deeply odd person, a googley-eyed boy doing a Robert DeNiro impersonation. Willis, amazingly, gives us that same person, but grown into himself, wiser, more mature, more confident, more decisive, a better person. Willis plays Gordon-Levitt from the future, and their scenes together are magical, the same man at different ages, contemptuous of the other for being young and stupid or for being stodgy and old. And again, they do it all with very little help from the undernourished script. I sat there wondering what they’d have had to chew on if Tom Stoppard had been invited to do some script doctoring.
The sci-fi aspects of the film are fairly standard, but are styled quite freshly—this is the grubbiest future yet, held together with duct tape more than futuristic alloys. It’s a grimey dystopia—both the future that Gordon-Levitt inhabits and the even-further-into-the-future future that Willis inhabits. The conceptual premise of the movie is that time-travel is discovered but quickly made illegal, so that the only people using it are criminal organizations. It’s hard to rub someone out in a time of ubiquitous microchipped ID’s, so they send them back into the past where Loopers take them out.
Sometimes the guy the Looper is taking out is himself from the future—they call that “closing the loop.” Well? It’s ridiculous. Luckily they keep it moving fast. Time-travel is the worst sci-fi trope: There are always going to be rambling explanations of how it works and how changing the past will change the future; and there are always going to be glaring inconsistencies (some things change everything, some things change nothing). And, frankly, it’s boring. So what? Going back 30 years into the past to get shot? Isn’t it the getting shot part that matters?
The whole premise is designed so Gordon-Levitt will have to shoot his older-self, Willis. Or not shoot him. Early in the movie, one of the other Loopers lets his older-self run free. The consequences are disastrous and that sequence is the most harrowing of the film, and almost makes the ridiculous premise worthwhile. When Gordon-Levitt is faced with the same problem, we are generally excited to see how it will turn out. Let me say, the ending is good. And because of that, and because of the fine work of the art directors and the actors, this is a worthwhile popcorn flick. And yet, it’s totally empty of any real substance. I would like to go back 30 years in the past and give writer/director Rian Johnson a crash course in phenomenology. There’s no use mind-bending an empty mind.