DVD Release Date: December 31, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: September 28, 2012
Rating: R (for some strong violence, strong language, some sexuality/nudity, and drug content)
Genre: Sci-Fi Drama
Run Time: 118 min
Director: Rian Johnson
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Piper Perabo

In today’s ever-evolving technological landscape, most high-concept movies are so busy trying to push the visual boundaries of what’s never been seen that they ignore the techniques that have made moviemaking great, even timeless. Looper is an exhilarating exception to that trend. I can’t tell you if it’ll become a classic or not, but man, it sure feels like one.

Beyond the cool conceptual hook (I’ll get to that in a second), what fuels this Sci-Fi/Noir mash-up is an attention to and slick execution of an enduring film language. Absent are shaky hand-held shots, gliding steadicams, or swooping digitially-enhanced fly-throughs. It’s as if writer/director Rian Johnson (The Brothers Bloom) basically said, "If we can’t capture something with the camera on a set of sticks, dolly, or the occasional jib/crane then we’re not going to shoot it."

So what does that all mean? It means Looper isn’t some generically-produced, loosely captured, thrown together flick that gets "found" in the editing room. Rather, it has been meticulously and artfully crafted. This isn’t just a story told; it’s a vision realized.

It’s 2042, roughly thirty years before time travel will be invented. From that time three decades in the future (i.e. 2072), the mob sends a person they want dead back to a designated location in 2042 where a hitman waits to kill the person instantly on arrival. This is an efficient way for the future mob to dispose of its enemies without a trace. The hitmen are called loopers.

But here's the catch: when the people sent back for assassination arrive in 2042, they do so with bags over their heads. Since the kills are instantaneous, a looper will occasionally come to find that, after the bag is pulled off, he’s just killed his future self. This is called "closing the loop," and while a looper is paid handsomely for doing so it’s the one big price he pays, sealing a finite end to his life – not to mention the morbid guilt of having killed himself. If a looper tries to subvert the process, the present-day mob will track down and kill both versions of him. This story follows the closing of one of those loops.

It’s also much more than that. This widely-publicized concept would be enough to drive a chase story between a Young and Old Self, but Johnson adds a whole other layer. He complicates the story and characters, as well as the moralities this movie is clearly wrestling with.

While this isn’t the first blend of science fiction and film noir we’ve seen (Blade Runner is a notable forerunner), Looper is a specific variation to the style. Most incarnations have been dark, wet, and dystopian. Looper certainly has its seedy side but is less gritty, and as a world feels more evolved from ours than some dire Orwellian police state. Its sci-fi touches are organic to a near-future (as are the early 21st-century elements that still linger), and the noir is established largely through lighting and camera techniques (as they were back in the 40s) and not in excessively designed set pieces.

From anti-heroes and femme fatales to criminal riff raff, the archetypes come almost exclusively from noir. The joint characterization of Young and Old Joe by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Dark Knight Rises) and Bruce Willis (Moonrise Kingdom) respectively is a fascinating collaboration of distinguished individual performances.

Gordon-Levitt, enhanced with facial makeup to approximate Willis’s profile, wisely gives an affectation rather than imitation of his older co-star. He's carelessly nihilistic while Willis is more tortured, and both brood deeply from the soul. This is another revelation for those still discovering Gordon-Levitt, and easily the best Willis has been (with the best role he’s had) in years. They also provide the most riveting face-to-face diner confrontation since Pacino/DeNiro in Heat.

The ensemble cast is strong. Emily Blunt’s (The Adjustment Bureau) gun-weilding Sara has a toughness born of circumstance rather than attitude, giving her dimension and humanity. Pierce Gagnon mezmerizes as the little boy who plays her son, evoking from us both fear and empathy. He’s unforgettable in this small but crucial role.

As the mob leader in 2042, Jeff Daniels (HBO’s The Newsroom) is having a lot of fun with the role while also bringing weight to it, going beyond easy scenery-chewing to unpredictable levels of menace. It’s the kind of standout character work that deserves Oscar recognition but is often overlooked (Willis’s performance falls into that category as well).

For as much as the actors anchor this stylized material, it’s still Johnson’s world and he is in complete command of it. It’s a well-constructed, complex narrative labyrinth with inventive ways of revealing how actions in the present change the future, but it’s much more than a plot machine. This is an affecting character study as well as an existential meditation on fate and justice.

Johnson takes the fantastical device of time travel and uses it to wrestle with challenging ideas. It's not so much that "with knowledge comes responsibility," but what is that responsibility when the knowledge is so cloaked in contextual and moral relativity? How can justice be achieved within that gray? If it can’t, what are the alternatives? Grace? Risk? Sacrifice? Doomed fate? There are no obvious answers and no easy choices.

Looper plays off of Johnson’s vast knowledge of film history, with a deep understanding of which classic techniques make a movie feel like a movie. It has an appreciation for the language and limitations that makes a movie distinctly cinematic as opposed to some overly-rendered virtual reality or glorified video game. Composer Nathan Johnson’s score also evokes previous golden eras.

Sure, the inconsistent memory shifts (or lack of them) for Old Joe occasionally create some holes in the logic, but those loop lapses are easily forgiven and instantly ignored in a movie where the visual, character, and thematic ambitions are so fully reached. Looper isn't just a cool movie. It's pure cinema.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: Some casual alcohol consumption. Alcohol and drugs are taken in club settings; people briefly seen as getting high off of the drugs. Smoking.
  • Language/Profanity: Regular though not pervasive use of profanity throughout. Multiple uses of both the F-word and S-word. A couple uses of the A-word. Five instances of the Lord’s name taken in vain. P-word crude sexual slang.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: Backstage at a strip club, scantily clad women and a couple briefly seen topless. Man and woman in bed togther; woman is topless, only wearing panties. A man and woman kiss passionately.
  • Violence/Other: A man commits suicide by shooting himself. A child is shot and killed (occurs off-screen). A woman is shot in the gut. A man is shot in the head. Several men are shot and killed at point-blank range. One man slowly loses body parts one at a time (due to shifts in time), each falling off and deteriorating. One man breaks another man’s hand by smashing it with a mallet. Multiple bloody wounds occur as a result of fights, gunplay, etc. A person with telekinetic powers creates havoc, fear, destruction, and injury.

Publication date: September 28, 2012