Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young Bruce Willis and Bruce Willis as an older Joseph Gordon-Levitt share the leading role of Joe, a hitman in the future who kills hitmen from the future’s future, in Rian Johnson’s sci-fi film noir, Looper.
Looper is classic film noir.
It has the right elements. The story's set in a city corrupt enough that the underworld bleeds into the daily life of the city without anyone, including the cops, taking much notice. There's a morally compromised protagonist who seems too smart and in some measure too decent to be doing what he's doing. There's a good woman who inspires him to at least consider changing his ways. There's a genial crime boss who is good at making the case that changing his ways is not something the protagonist would have an easy or pleasant time doing and, anyway, the situation isn't so terrible, is it, considering the pay and the perks and the benefits? There's the protagonist's weaselly pal who puts him in a bind that makes him have to choose between doing the stupid but decent thing and the smart but rotten thing. And there's the antagonist who is the protagonist's moral mirror, his doubled self in whom he can see either the prospect of his own redemption or his utter damnation, in whom, so to speak, he can read the future. It just happens that in Looper this double isn't a shadow version of the protagonist's self. He is himself.
Oh, and time travel has been invented.
Or will be invented. Which amounts to the same thing.
I'm going to try very hard to avoid spoilers, but I'm assuming you know the premise. It's 2044. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a hitman providing a very specialized service. He's a looper. Loopers hire out to whack criminals sent back from thirty years in the future by mob bosses there who want to dispose of witnesses, rivals, traitors, snitches, and screw-ups without a trace. The police in the future appear to be better at their jobs or are less corrupt than the cops in Joe's present and care when people are murdered, even bad guys. There's a crackdown too, it seems, because the bosses need to tie up loose ends and among those loose ends are the future selves of loopers like Joe. It's part of a looper's contract that his last hit will be his own future self.
You'd think this would create qualms in the loopers. It's one thing to kill strangers. It's another to kill the person you know best. You'd also think, knowing what's in store for them down the road, loopers would prepare and even take some steps to avoid it. But director and screenwriter Rian Johnson deals with that by playing with one of the paradoxes of time travel. You might be able to hide in the future, but the bosses know exactly where to find you in the past and whatever they do to you then is going to affect you now by changing the course of your life in between for the worse.
But Johnson also handles this on moral and psychological levels. You have to figure that hired killers are people to whom other people aren't real and that might be because they aren't real to themselves. As Joe tells us in the sparingly used, effectively placed hardboiled narration, "This job does not attract the most forward-thinking people."
That's a self-indictment, of course, but the fact Joe's self-aware enough to make it is going to cause Joe trouble, in the future and in the present. Future Joe is Joe grown smarter and more self-aware and more real to himself. And even though Future Joe is thirty years older, he has something Joe in the present doesn't think of himself as having much of, a future, and a future that matters to him. Which is to say, Future Joe has a reason to live and that means he has a reason not to let his past self kill his present self.
Johnson does an excellent job of setting up his future world of thirty years from now. It's different enough to be recognizably not our world. There are things going on that make this a place we would not be comfortable in and Johnson hints at what might have happened that brought this dystopia about, but he doesn't dwell on any of it and it very quickly ceases to matter except as a plausible background for the twists and turns of the plot. Otherwise, 2044 might as well be now or 1954. (Johnson comes up with an offhand but very funny explanation for why people in the future talk and dress like people now.) I liked how Johnson builds this world right away, in just a few quick scenes, while setting right to work telling his story. But maybe the best thing about Johnson's futuristic cityscapes is that they are created suggestively through small design and costume touches without heavy reliance on green screens and cgi.
And Johnson is one of the most patient directors going. He takes a long time to introduce his second male lead, which means he takes a long time to bring the actor who is in fact his star on screen, and he takes an even longer time to introduce his leading lady, so long that I forgot Emily Blunt was in the movie. Her showing up came as a jolt and a very pleasant surprise.
Taking the extra time to introduce Joe's future self---and Bruce Willis---is important because it is Old Joe who needs to be introduced not Willis. This is Gordon-Levitt's movie because it is Joe's story and there are not two Joes. There's just the one who happens to be played by two actors. Gordon-Levitt isn't playing a younger Bruce Willis. Willis isn't playing a young Gordon-Levitt. They're both playing Joe, and what Johnson patiently sets us up for is to see Old Joe, when he finally appears, not as the man Levitt's Joe might become but as the man he already is, just with less hair. (There are a couple of wordless bald jokes at Willis' expense worked in.) Being suddenly presented with a different version of Joe who is in fact not different, even though he travels with a higher body count and a longer list of sins on his moral ledger, forces us to re-evaluate our rooting interest in Joe.
Just what, we have to ask, are we rooting for him to do? Why should we root for him to do it? Why should we root for him at all?
There was a good-natured online debate at the time The Expendables 2 came out over whose career was the less expendable, Willis’, Stallone’s, or Schwartzenegger’s. Basically, the question was, Which one has made more movies that are real keepers. The answer is obviously Willis’. Stallone’s made some good movies. Arnold has too. But Willis has made a few more than either. (All three have made some incredible turkeys.) And he adds another to the list with Looper. But Willis has also delivered more truly fine performances (although Stallone’s underrated as an actor), and Old Joe may be his best yet. But, like I said, Looper is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s movie, and not just because it’s his Joe’s story.
I won’t argue that Looper’s going to make him a real star, his generation’s Clooney or Pitt (or Willis), next in line to Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, because how do I know. But I’ll bet if he does make that leap (or sticks it if he’s already in the middle of the jump), fans and critics in the future will point to Inception as the film in which the process began and to Looper as the movie that made his bones as a leading man.
I hope someone does a joint interview with Gordon-Levitt and Willis focusing on how they worked out playing the same character at the same time but goes beyond discussions of prosthetics and mimicking gestures and facial expressions. It doesn’t seem to me that I can discuss Gordon-Levitt’s and Willis’ performances apart from each other or discuss both together without giving too much way. But it’s safe to say this. Both share an admirable lack of vanity. Neither one gives way to any special pleading on behalf of Joe. There are no overt plays for the audience’s sympathy, no softening, no blunting of edges that are as ragged and sharp as the opening of an old-fashioned can top. What is rotten in Joe is rotten in him as a young man and stays rotten in him the rest of his life. The rottenness is as much a part of Gordon-Levitt’s Joe as it is of Willis’. So is the little enough, that’s just enough, of what’s decent.
I find it funny that three of my favorite leading ladies of all time are just entering their primes now. Amy Adams, Anne Hathaway, and Emily Blunt. It seems odd that it may turn out that my all time favorites either had the best parts of their careers before I was born or during my old age. (There's probably a post in explaining how it happened that none of the leading ladies of my youth captured my heart or critical appreciation. Short answer: It took a long time for the Seventies to wear off. Shorter answer: Jane Fonda, Barbara Streisand, and Woody Allen. Oh yeah. There's definitely a post here.) I've seen Blunt deliver three fine performances this year---in Wild Target, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and now Looper. Her cameo in The Muppets is a little gem too, although it's kind of an homage to her breakout role in The Devil Wears Prada.
Blunt is developing the character actor disguised as a movie star trick of becoming a very different person in each new movie without looking any different. Adams can do this too. I think some of it is due to their both having, even though they are beautiful, cartoonish features---big eyes, wide mouths, comically cute noses. It takes the attention away from their prettiness and focuses it on their expressiveness. In Looper, Blunt is ingenue beautiful but what she makes us see is that her character is not. She's a farm girl turned party girl turned farmer in her own right who knows how to handle that shotgun.
As Abe, Joe's genial and psychologically seductive boss in the movie's present, Jeff Daniels is smart, good-natured, laid-back, slyly humorous, and so likeable you almost want him to be a good guy. It's even easy to imagine how in another movie Daniels could play a different character in the exact same way as a good guy. But Abe is a bad guy through and through. He's just a very level-headed and practical-minded one and persuasive to the point that he can sell a selfish surrender to doing the wrong thing as a form of virtue.
And Paul Dano and Noah Segan are very good in a thematically connected pair of supporting roles, Dano as Seth, Joe's weaselly pal who drags him into the mess that sets up the bigger mess Joe makes for himself, and Segan as Kid Blue, Abe's weaselly in his own way, too ambitious but emotionally as well as professionally insecure lieutenant. Both Seth and Kid Blue, without any self-awareness, are constantly begging for others to be aware of them as selves. They each want---and desperately need---to feel they have worth in at least one other person's eyes.
Which loops me back to where I started.
Looper is the first movie I've seen in a long time that's made me want to turn around and go back in the theater to watch it again. (Unlike as would have been the case with The Master, I'd have gone back for the pure fun of it, not because I felt I needed to re-take an exam.) It's a terrific thriller that also works as pretty good science fiction. But it's important to keep in mind that despite its sci-fi trappings it's still film noir. Which means it's basically a morality tale.
For those of you who are wondering, Johnson deals with the Grandfather Paradox of time travel by giving into it. But also by using it to address a moral point.
The question isn't how time travel works or why if it's possible time travelers aren't already among us changing history with their every butterfly-squashing step or if they are, how come we don't know it?
The question is what makes any individual life essential to the timeline?
Who could be erased from it without loss?
The better way to phrase it, though, is the way Looper finally does. What makes a life worth dying for or, even better, what makes one worth living for?
I did my best with the spoilers. But be warned. I’m not going to scrub the comments clean of them. I’m asking folks to be careful and avoid giving away major surprises, but it’s hard to hold a real discussion of any movie without getting into any specifics. So if you haven’t seen Looper yet, you should probably avoid the comments until you have, which I’m assuming you will. See it, I mean. Which you should. See it. The movie. Help, I’m getting stuck in a loop!
Looping back to related movie reviews in the past:
For those of you who feel like re-taking the exam, my review of The Master, Caution: Genius and Work.
Looper, written and directed by Rian Johnson, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Pierce Gagnon, Qing Xu, and Garret Dillahunt. Rated R. Now in theaters.