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Looper



My, what a big gun you have.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt wielding his blunderbuss in Looper.  


What a drag it is to take out the trash.  This applies to you or me, hauling a drawstring bag full of god knows what down to the garbage can or dumpster.  It applies also to the existential grind of being a Looper.  It's 2044 and there's still something the matter with Kansas.  The good news is that in 30 years time travel will be possible.  The bad news is that this temporal byway is going to be plied mainly by the criminal element.  There will be the occasional need to travel back and forth to make sure matters in both the past and future are as they should be to those in charge.  But there's also the traffic of unfortunate souls given a one way ticket back to 2044 so they can be summarily killed and their body disposed of.  This is taking out the trash Looper-style, as Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) explains, speaking with the terseness of a film noir anti-hero.

The vague though technology savvy mafia in Looper send their victims back to 2044, Joe tells us, because it's hard to lose a body in the future.  This due to "tracking and whatnot."  Like much of the shaky science in writer/director Rian Johnson's science fiction, it’s best just to accept these facts at face value.  Ultimately, Looper is worth the indulgence. 

The grind of Loopering is amply demonstrated in the early scenes of Mr. Johnson’s story.  Joe stands on an open piece of ground in the midst of cornfields, blunderbuss at the ready.  Equally antiquated, or at least low-tech, is the pocket watch he checks to be prepared for the moment at which a doomed figure from the future appears before him, head covered, knees down on a white, plastic square, sort of the least soothing yoga mat in history.  It is the Looper’s job to blast without hesitation, which we see him doing time after time.  Then off to the incinerator to dispose of the body once and for all.

We see repeated jobs thus completed by Joe, all with apparent detachment.  But it is a grind, being a human garbage man of the future, even if the work pays well.  Each body hurled back to the past to be blasted and burned bears a portion of silver bars taped to the victim’s back.  Joe stores his considerable stash of silver in a hiding space beneath the floorboards of his loft apartment. The loft is but one perks of Joe’s station, another being a nice ride.  In keeping with Joe’s retro taste, his red sports car looks decidedly early 21st  century.  This as opposed to the jet cycle of fellow looper, Seth (Paul Dano), which zooms above ground when it’s actually running. 

Seth is first seen tending to that temperamental bike before given a ride by Joe.  The two swerve around the numerous and clearly more destitute citizens of future Kansas like so many potholes.  Perhaps to numb himself to such contrasts, perhaps to assuage the guilt of  blunderbussing others into oblivion,  Joe uses some of his disposable income to procure a kind of hallucinogen which is administered by eyedropper.  There’s a good, illustrative scene in Looper in which Joe and some friends go for a drive while he’s obviously under the influence.  Johnson captures the swooning interlude well before quickly bringing it to a halt, Joe slamming his breaks to avoid running down a boy who is in the path of his car, the abrupt stop giving him his own blast of instant sobriety, if not karma. 
   



In more sober moments, to chase the boredom before the next job comes, Joe teaches himself French (Gordon-Levitt is apparently something of a Francophile).  Until he can actually get to France, Joe uses his developing French vocabulary to flirt with a diner waitress, Beatrix (Tracie Thoms).  Mr. Johnson’s slightly dystopian future features not only a mid-twentieth-century diner, but one plopped into the middle of those Kansas cornfields about as arbitrarily as those unlucky people sent back in time.  Alright then.   


A looper is so nicknamed because there comes a time when that unfortunate masked man on the wrong side of the blunderbuss is him.  Ultimately, thy pocket watch tolls for thee, poor looper.  This is what is called closing the loop, lest these individuals cause the future mafia any trouble with their criminal knowledge.  When their contract is terminated they are sent back to be killed by their younger selves.  The reward in such cases are gold bars instead of silver and thirty years of freedom before that strange return to the exterminating self.   Really, not so bad as severance packages go.  Failure to kill the older you when he lands on that appointed square, is punishable by…well, death.   Such are the ironies and dire redundancies of the future as imagined by Rian Johnson.  


The first instance we see of a looper failing to whack himself, as it were, is when a hysterical Seth shows up at Joe’s apartment one night.  With his hair dyed red and pulled back, those cheekbones of Paul Dano have never looked sharper as he plays Seth.  And as  the panicking looper,  Dano’s voice has rarely been stretched to such thin, nearly prepubescent heights.  He tells Joe that his latest blastee arrived from the future singing, and there was something familiar about the tune which kept him from shooting.  And well it should have sounded familiar, as young Seth was meeting older Seth. 


The complications in Looper multiply when Joe faces a similar dilemma.  His future self turns out to be a tired looking Bruce Willis, who arrives without the requisite bag over his head.  This causes a fatal pause on Joe's part, as two versions of Joe Simmons regard each other with a moment of head-tilting bewilderment.  Wily old Joe breaks the spell and manages to get the jump on the Gordon-Levitt version.  Young Joe awakens to find a note from his future self, "Run."  Sound advice which he does not heed.   

Joe instead returns to the dark metropolis  - Wichita?  Topkea?  A Kansas City where not quite everything is up to date? - and his loft home, where his boss' henchmen, or "Gat Men," are divesting him of his silver.  A confrontation  would seem to result in Joe's death, as he slips from a fire escape.  Director Johnson provides a cleverly rotated camera angle, following Joe's back-first descent to apparent oblivion, the perspective giving him the appearance of heading to the great beyond seated in an invisible Lazy Boy.  


Joe's boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels), was sent from the future to manage the loopers, which he does with mordant understatement.  Daniels and Gordon-Levitt worked together in 2007's excellent The Lookout.  Daniels wouldn't seemed to have changed much in appearance, including his casual wardrobe from the earlier film, having simply lost the blind-man's sunglasses from The Lookout and let the hair and beard run to their (presumably) natural grey.  Daniel's  film acting of the past decade or so, along with his work on HBO's The Newsroom, has made him our preeminent impatiently intelligent and grumpy old...well, at least middle-aged man. Long may he growl.    




Daniels is one of the main pleasures of Looper, even considering his limited screen time.  There is one extended exchange between Abe and Joe when the latter is called into his boss' well-guarded office to spill the whereabouts of the awol looper, Seth.  Here, Rian Johnson,the screenwriter has an opportunity to display some wit in the midst of a generally earnest film.  Abe, ever the shrewd man in charge, knows that Joe has been saving money in hopes of going abroad someday.

"You're gonna get out, you're gonna go overseas.  Right?  Studying up your Mandarin."  

"French."


(After some bargaining with regard to Seth's life and Joe's silver...) "Why the fuck French?"


"I'm going to France." 


"You should go to China." 


"I'm going to France."


"I'm from the future, you should go to China."  
       

We later see that Joe actually took the amusing, if astute advice.  After what seems his imminent death, another very different version of events follows.  Joe does pull the trigger on his future self and those prescribed thirty years of retirement follow.  But as his unconventional IRA dwindles, Joe resorts to old habits, pulling armed heists.  Looper never quite displays the imagination or audacious ambition of something like Christoper Nolan's Inception - that film being like a chess game played out on three levels at once as opposed to Looper's two - but it's confusing enough as the China years, seemingly an alternate version of Joe Simmons' life,  play out and we're back to the younger man pursuing his older self.  Or as Abe says, "...all this time travel shit, just fries your brain like an egg."   

During this extended future montage, in which the year numbers are flashed on the screen, we also see the unlikely transition from Joseph Gordon-Levitt to Bruce Willis.  Joe's hair gets longer, he even assumes a more Asian appearance, before Willis, wigged in the stringy remains of the younger man's black hair takes over.   To ostensibly make this connection more credible, Gordon-Levitt's appearance was altered, apparently a combination of makeup and prosthetics.  This doesn't make him look like a younger Willis so much as something out of Anime, perhaps Speed Racer a few years on and slightly embittered.  The changes somewhat neutralize the appeal of Gordon-Levitt, an inadvertent benefit of the work perhaps, since he's playing a character frequently unsympathetic.  Like so much about Looper, you simply accept the men as versions of the same person or you don't.         

As Simmons the younger begins to purse Simmons the elder in earnest, there is a temptation not to accept Looper at all.  Up to a point, the film comes across a somewhat empty exercise in shaky science fiction.  Fortunately, much as writer/director Rian Johnson does seem to be hitting a stage of diminishing returns with the fanciful alternate reality of his films - from the high school noir of Brick to the highly stylized caper of The Brothers Bloom to the current Looper - he manages to succeed in the way he has throughout his brief career.  Johnson is able to make a very human connection between our everyday reality and the outlandish world of his stories.  

With Looper that connection begins with the uneasy meeting between young and old Joe in that cornfield diner.  The younger man, unlike his more sentimental counterpart Seth, feels no compunction about blasting his older self, perpetrating some significant Joe on Joe violence.  "So, you're me in 30 years?" he asks.  A tense conversation ensues between present and future, with subtle indications of the connection between the two.   Gordon-Levitt shadows some of Willis' manerisms; the older man has "Beatrix" inscribed on his arm.  The older Joe finally silences his younger self by exclaiming, "Shut your fucking child mouth!"  The Willis Joe explains that he needs to  find and kill a child who will grow to be a fearsome criminal mastermind of the future called "The Rainmaker," who among more large-scale harm, caused the death of his wife.   The Rainmaker, equipped with a special power,  is sort of the don of the future mafia, who's consolidating his power by closing all the loops.   



Dont' shoot, it's you! Bruce Willis as the future Joe Simmons in Looper.  
The most interesting complexity at the heart of Looper is not the complicated science fiction of the same life looping back and forth in time.  Within that skein of time in flux is a complex consideration not only of present and future self, but self as opposed to communal well being.  It's the older Joe who initially seems the wiser, more selfless version.  It is for the love of his Chinese wife that he has allowed himself to be sent back to 2044, to kill The Rainmaker.  It's young Joe who seems only to consider himself and his selfish plans.  But as the Looper proceeds to its climax, we'll see that a dangerous egocentrism finds expression in the older as well as the younger man.  

Willis, despite matters of appearance, is a good casting choice, beyond the no doubt desirable connection of the little commercial engine that could of Looper to the major successes of which he has been a part.  The actor has always brought a kind wry or weary humanity to the big, outlandish stories in which he's played a leading role.  He has managed to reduce the outsize stories of the Die Hard films, The Fifth Element or even the humorous Red to a digestible human scale.  That's precisely what Rian Johnson has done so well in his three feature films as a writer and director.  


Looper's climactic showdown occurs on the farm where a single mother named Sara lives with her rather unique son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon).   Young Joe essentially stumbles on the farm and its occupants.  Older Joe, he knows, will show up eventually, as he hunts down the child who will become the future Rainmaker.  Emily Blunt is not immediately recognizable herself as Sara, hair dyed lighter than usual, British accent left off camera and even swinging an axe more convincingly than one might have thought possible, particularly if you've seen her as the brittle rival of Ann Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada, or as The Young Victoria. 







Sara, like ten percent of the population of 2044 has "TK."  This telekinesis, we are told, is the result of a mutation.  The cause of the mutation were are not told.  Was it some sort of nuclear accident?  Too much junkfood?  Having a portable phone adhered to the side of  the head for most of one's existence?  Hard to say.  Like several aspects of Rian Johnson's future world, it's an arbitrary and unexplained phenomenon.  Sara's TK, as the mutation goes, is of the ordinary sort.  She refers to it as Joe had earlier in voiceover, talking of most "TKs" as "...a bunch of assholes thinking they're blowing your mind by floating quarters.  

Her son Cid, however, can float much more than a quarter.  There's no greater demonstration of this than when one Abe's Gat Men show up for Joe.  Cid is eventually scared and sent sprawling down a staircase.  This, we quickly find out, is not a child that it is wise to threaten or scare.  First, all of the objects in the home, however sizable, are jerked into the air in which they  are suspended.   The release when it occurs proves rather detrimental to the Gat Man.  It's a an impressive effect, Wachowskian in it's gravity defiance and play with perspective.  It's also reminiscent of the Twilight Zone episode "It's A Good Life," which features another rural youth on whose good side it is best to remain.  


The question over which the two versions of Joe Simmons have their final battle is should the powerful child Cid be stopped before he becomes the future Rainmaker, or will the violence of hurting him or his mother only breed exponentially more violence for those living in the future.    




Looper is the least satisfying of Rian Johnson's three feature films.  And while it is does not pullulate with the technical bravura of a film like Inception, it connects emotionally in a way that Nolan's film and other sprawling science fiction stories often do not.  Ultimately, the strength of Emily Blunt's performance is due its share of credit for this.   She, more than anyone turns out to be the heart of the film.  Gordon-Levitt's younger Joe might eventually get to do the right thing, but like most anti-heroes, his good deed shows up rather late in the game.  

There is also the refreshing matter of a mainstream film whose climax involves a decision between personal happiness and a sacrifice for the sake of the future well-being of many.  This while Looper's release coincided roughly with the worrying record melt of Arctic Sea ice, but one of many disturbing indicators of our possible future.  Should one buy that sleek new SUV, or not?  It seems unlikely that many, or any of the millions who saw Looper at the theater left weighted down by these issues, but their presence in a multiplex film alongside such diverting (if half realized) sci-fi and a satisfying story are commendable none-the-less.  Can we do what is right for the future, or would it take a blunderbuss to stop us in our oblivious, destructive tracks?  A question which lurks in the emotional payoff of Looper, whether you choose to address it or not.      




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