In the Future, Miatas are Cool
Okay, first things first, Looper is a really hard film to review. It’s nearly impossible to discuss in any meaningful way without spoiling the whole thing. I generally ignore the chicken little, virulently anti-spoiler, review-commenting H8RZ, and some films can’t really be spoiled – The Master, say, which is ninety percent mood and visuals. But with Looper, you spend most of the film collecting little story threads from different times and places in the hopes that at the end, you’ll be able to make yourself a nice soft logic quilt, and that the figure-eight, infinity loop of the plot universe will close unto itself with all cause and effect still intact, so that the little dudes on rollerblades can skate around it super fast. (That’s us, bro, rollerblading around the figure 8 of LIFE). And in Looper, like a Christopher Nolan movie, the what or why of an action happening onscreen is usually justified retroactively, rather than set up in advance. So to question a plot point’s importance or believability necessitates revealing its outcome and thus removing an element of suspense (which, even for a critic, is sort of a dick move). But beyond all talk of what I did or didn’t like or what subplots did or didn’t come together in the end, the biggest takeaway is this: Rian Johnson is trying to blow your mind, and this is important.
What we already know from the trailer: It’s 2044. Time travel hasn’t been invented yet, but in 30 years, it will have been. It’s outlawed, but controlled by criminal organizations (WHEN TIME TRAVEL IS OUTLAWED, ONLY THE OUTLAWS ETC ETC). When they want to kill someone, they send the victim back in time to 2044 to be dispatched by specialized assassins called loopers, whose only skill seems to be the ability to aim giant, one-shot shotguns called blunderbusses at people, and then go home to play with their future motorcycles and classic Mazda Miatas. One such looper, obviously, is Joseph Gordon-Levitt in weird makeup, who one day comes face to face with his future self, who is Bruce Willis (explaining the weird makeup). Except for being able to see his face, this is how the looper arrangement is supposed to work. They sign on for 30-year contracts, in the process killing their older selves and “closing the loop.” Thus, when JGL and future JGL encounter each other, the conflict is whether future JGL (Bruce Willis) can convince present JGL to sacrifice his comfortable present for the possibility of a longer future (“no, dude, seriously, it’s mega-cool here, you’re gonna love it!”). Conversely, JGL has to convince his older self to go quietly to his early grave so that he can keep the dub-step Miata gangbang going without complicating it with a bunch of mob dudes trying to kill him. We’ve all had similar hangover dreams starring the ghost of liver-health future, I’m sure.
While Looper is a lot like a Chris Nolan movie in that you watch things happen, and you have to try to figure out why without your brain melting out your nose into your popcorn until the explanation comes, one welcome difference between Johnson and Nolan is that whereas self-serious Nolan seems like he’d explode into confetti if he ever tried to make a joke, Rian Johnson is actually pretty playful. At one point, when JGL and Bruce Willis are sitting across from each other at a diner (and again, this scene is in the trailer), JGL asks him, “So tell me about the future. Or wait, since you’re me, don’t you already know what I’m about to say (etc. etc),” and Bruce Willis’s response is, “Is that what we came here for, to talk about the implications of time travel!? We’d be here all day, making models with straws!” It’s a welcome bit of fourth-wall breaking, Johnson going tongue-in-cheek with his own plot to let you know that time travel is always going to be slightly beyond your linear-time-based comprehension, so stop expecting Doc Brown to show up with his chalk board. Also, whereas, at least in The Dark Knight movies, Nolan’s style of “relentless subterfuge” (as Armond White called it) is mostly just that – a style – Looper is a time travel movie whose entire theme is alternate, parallel, causal universes, so the hard-to-follow plot is actually a case of form following function (much like your mom’s big fat ass).
The story has a couple holes too spoilery to talk about (I’m including them below, so you can read them when you’re ready), but here’s just one irrelevant one: Why does Joseph Gordon-Levitt have a New Yawkish accent in the present but a Southerny one in the future? I like that the movie doesn’t seem concerned with how good their impressions are of each other, but that still seemed odd. The ending is also a bit of a case of “why the hell didn’t you just do that in the first place?” and the significance of the guns is never really explained (I didn’t need an explanation, but it left me curious). That said, the fairly nihilistic movie actually ends on a pretty humanist note, and even more importantly than that, Rian Johnson just seems like he cares (and this was my first Rian Johnson movie, I entered without bias). The shots are beautiful without being self-conscious, and, countering the shaky-cam trend, he gives sequences of violent action violence while maintaining a sense of composition and spatial awareness, as opposed to just juggling the camera around and editing it all to sh*t like an assh*le. Much is communicated solely through visual.
Rian Johnson wants to blow your mind. And my mind, like my wiener, likes getting blown. Even if they trip up here or there, we need filmmakers who are trying to blow your mind (especially ones that can do it while still having fun) to maintain film as a vital medium, one that can accomplish things that other mediums can’t. Without that, you get theater, an increasingly-irrelevant art form with an increasingly-insular audience, where most of the biggest sellers are just stunt-casted live movies with cheesy musical numbers added. At the risk of sounding like John Gruden when he says “This is a football player!”, Looper is a movie. And we need movies to show people that they need movies. How’s that for closing a loop.
I get that Bruce Willis somehow knows the addresses of all three babies born the same day as The Rainmaker, but isn’t it kind of a huge coincidence that his favorite hooker’s baby just happens to be born on the same day as the future Rainmaker? And isn’t that wild coincidence the only way that the gangsters catch up to Willis? And without having known that, isn’t staking out some random hooker’s house kind of a bonehead move for the gangsters?
This isn’t really a “hole” per se, but it seems like the sympathy to the little kid who would be Rainmaker on which the entire plot rests is based almost completely on the fact that he’s cute. I mean, he is ridiculously cute, but still, you’re telling me you wouldn’t let a guy who travels back in time kill Hitler because Hitler just happened to be a cute kid? And you’re willing to bet it all that the kid won’t grow up to be Hitler if people just stop messing with him (at a point in his life when he’s already been messed with)? That’s a SERIOUS nurture-over-nature argument.