Rian Johnson, writer and director of the new film Looper, has made a career of working within well defined cinematic containers. So far Johnson has taken the well known archetypical structures, film noir(Brick), the con-man film(The Brothers Bloom), and now with Looper, the time travel picture, and lovingly worked within the standardized structure we’ve all become fond of. The impressive thing, though, is Johnson’s ability to bring new, and usually unexpected, elements that should turn those cinematic containers on their ear. But they don’t, they somehow manage to take our love of those containers and neither betray or ignore it, instead making it seem familiar and fresh at the same time. This is the real talent of Rian Johnson, and in Looper he seems to have mastered it.
As the title suggests, Looper is about a group of assassins that are aptly named “loopers”. This particular brand of assassination involves the murder of an unfortunate individual sent from the future for the sole purpose of execution. As with most things, though, these loops must come to a close. In this case each looper is sent his or her self, aged thirty years of course, to be assassinated for a hefty reward. They are then allowed to live well for those next thirty years until they are called upon to die…again…kinda. If this all seems overly complicated and headache inducing, be assured the film itself doesn’t overly concern itself with these logistics. This is a time travel film that focuses on theme and character, never the real physics of time travel itself. That fact is what allows Looper to be such a success.
Whenever said time travel threatens to bog down the film with its own physics and self contained logic, Johnson’s ability to avert the known cinematic container of time travel allows the film to keep its narrative feet and chug along, achieving an impressive level of filmmaking. Perhaps the most meta of moments in Looper comes during a conversation between two characters. One character seems intent on laying out the logic of time travel, and all of the confusing wrinkles it causes along the way. The other character, though, wants no part in it. With the literal response of “It doesn’t matter”, that familiar time travel conversation is passed over and the audience is back where it should be, caring for the characters and their goals. With this simple statement, Johnson diverts most problems that plague time travel movies. When a film screeches to a halt in order to explain the physics of time travel it almost invariably fails as a narrative. Johnson, with his skill as a writer and director, allows Looper to speed by this narrative cliff without ever falling off it, never joining its failed time travel peers.
Another important aspect of a successful component of a successful narrative, especially in a hefty exposition laden film, is the character work. There are only so many minutes in a film, and when a large portion of them have to be spent explaining the actions and progression of the film, the characters depend on strong performances and strong, even if sparse, dialogue. Johnson has taken care of writing quality dialogue and, luckily, his cast seems more than capable of delivering it. Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon Levitt, and Emily Blunt are all strong here, emoting and performing well beyond the words within the script. The real stand out, though, is the relative new comer, Pierce Gagnon. Given his young age and the amount Looper’s narrative leans on his performance, Gagnon is nearly at the literal jaw dropping level. So good, that even the other performers seem in awe of him within the scenes played out.
Looper’s underlying theme, what we are willing to do in order to pursue an obsession in a moment, even when we know that obsession will adapt or change completely at different stages in life, is a very human idea which, in turn makes Looper a surprisingly human film. Beyond the action and the time travel, Looper is a very personal, and strangely touching, film. While the time travel container Johnson has constructed Looper within seems familiar, his humanistic additions raises Looper beyond the ordinary and into a very special sci-fi film.