Monday, October 8, 2012

‘Looper’ (2012) directed by Rian Johnson, 6th October 2012

I've always had a soft spot for time travel movies.  They give a director express permission to head into the world of the surreal and the odd.   Suddenly the laws of physics and space become malleable, and past, present and future all pile up into one big confusing melange.  Add to this that also I'm a bit of a sucker for visions of the future, it allows for some neat and incisive political commentary on how the director views the present day, and lets us visualise futures to avoid at all costs, or to try and aim for.

Rian Johnson’s ‘Looper’ is a fine entry into the time travel canon.  Set primarily in 2033 Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a looper.  The job of a looper is essentially a binman for the future of 2074.  Gangsters zap people they want disappeared back in time, Joe blasts them with a blunderbuss the moment they appear and then he disposes of them in an industrial furnace.  They’re called ‘loopers’ because the prevent paradoxes they must 'close their own loop'.  In practice this means that at some point their own future self will be sent back for execution.  But Joe’s future self (Bruce Willis) manages to escape, and Joe must catch him to close his own loop.  Old Joe is on a mission in the past, engaged in what seems like a classic time travel idea, to kill a child that will one day grow up into a monster, the all-conquering 'Rainmaker', who has indirectly killed Old Joe's wife.  High concept stuff.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe
Rian Johnson delights in playing with this complexity, about the fun and deeply strange consequences of time travel.  How does the same person interact with himself at a different point on his timeline. If something happens to the younger Joe, what effect will it have on the older one?  How does memory work if the younger Joe does things that Old Joe didn't do?  This film more than answers questions like these and keeps throwing interesting variations and kinks into the mix, like the unforgettable and terrifying time mutilation sequence.  At the same time, he treats time travel with a refreshing irreverence, with Jeff Bridges excellent (and very Slavoj Žižekian) Abe pronouncing "don't think about this stuff too much, it'll fry your brain".  It's like he's speaking directly to the audience.  Analysing how the mechanics of time travel apply here is completely missing the point; this is a film about bigger things that merely uses time travel as a narrative tool.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of my favourite rising stars.  He first came to my attention as someone to watch in Rian Johnson’s ‘Brick’ (2005) where he played a hard-bitten Marlowesque PI working through a noir like plot while still in high school.  This performance was outstanding, so my expectations were high for this, his second collaboration with Rian Johnson.  He met, and exceeded these expectations.  His performance here is delicately multi-levelled, and he manages to simultaneously define Joe as a distinct character, while also managing a subtle Bruce Willis impression and at the same time maintaining the ironically detached, quick-witted persona established in his recent career.  He’s playing this role through some prosthetics to give him a bit more resemblance to Willis, but these soon become invisible to the audience, and Levitt utterly melts into the character.  I suspect that many a lesser actor would have been happy with a straight Bruce Willis impression, but there’s a distinction between Bruce Willis’ stock film persona, and the character of Old Joe.

Bruce Willis doing what Bruce Willis does best as Old Joe
On the other hand, Bruce Willis has never been an actor that melts into his character.  Pretty much every role he plays is refracted to some degree through the prism of the Die Hard series’ John McClane.  Whether this is because McClane is essentially Willis, or that over the years Willis decided that people just want to see McClane doesn’t matter.  This isn’t a criticism per se, Willis is very good at doing what he does.  Namely gritting his teeth, being underestimated by those around him and through a mixture of improvised smarts wiping out the bad guys (all the while with a dose of wry humour).  Here, Willis as Old Joe allows this persona to come under some pretty effective criticism.  The character of Old Joe is very much in the classic Willis mode, and there is a huge dollop of charisma on almost everything he does.  What sets this film aside is the way in which these old school action hero traits are shown up as part of a self-sustaining cycle of violence and misery.  The intense charisma of Willis is subverted into a mask to keep a child murderer focussed on his mission.

At first glance, our protagonist Joe looks like the quintessential cool movie hitman.  He’s got a smart car, an upmarket minimalist flat, an attractive trophy girlfriend, a big gun and dresses in a refined retrofuturistic style.  He’s an easy man to like and respect; the epitome of a certain materialistic brand of masculinity.  But Johnson systematically strips all of this power away from him as we learn more about the world he lives in.  The job of a looper may pay well, but it’s looked down upon as lazy work for those who can’t plan ahead.  There is no skill in it, and all the job seemingly requires is a minimal level of competence and a kind of reckless, blank stupidity.  So we see this hitman archetype reduced to the binman of the future.  His smartly designed futuristic gun the ‘blunderbuss’ is shown to be next to useless as an offensive weapon, his clothing style is mocked as overly calculated and affected and his interactions with people outlined as desperate and shallow.  By the time we see him desperately puking in the dirt as he goes through drug withdrawal, we as an audience understand that this is not someone in a happy place in their life.

Emily Blunt as Sarah (someone I haven't talked about very much because I don't want to spoil the plot)
Initially, Old Joe seems a lot better, a happier man, one who talks about how the love of a good woman has cleared his head.  His existence seems like a bright light at the end of the tunnel for Joe.  But this is all a lie.  Old Joe is barely any better than his younger self, sure he may have kicked the drugs, but his first instinct when faced with difficulty is to resort to lethal force.  We see in montage what happens in Joe’s life, the transition from Gordon-Levitt to Bruce Willis.  It’s a bloodbath, a life lived at the barrel of a gun with innumerable casualties.  

Old Joe's motivation is to prevent the death of his wife by killing the child that will eventually become the super-gangster responsible for her death.  It seems like a noble quest, but it's fatally undercut when Joe points out to his older self that if he wants to save his wife, then simply show him her picture.  When he sees her in the future he’ll turn away and ignore her, thus preventing her murder in the future.  It’s an elegant solution, yet requires a level of self-sacrifice that Old Joe simply doesn't possess.  Instead he embarks on a deluded mission to murder three young children.  It’s heartbreaking seeing Old Joe heading off to murder children, desperately trying to justify to himself that he’s doing the right thing.  Ironically, by swimming through this river of blood he manages to ensure the very future he's desperate to prevent.

Joe meets Joe
This is a film that goes out of its way to show violence as an actively harmful agent to society, but what can oppose it?  The answer is maternal empathy and communication.  Throughout the film the links between mother and son are strongly emphasised.  The effect on Joe of his mother’s abandonment of him, and his subsequent ‘adoption’ by Abe, the dark father figure that turns him into a looper has consequences throughout the film.  Old Joe’s wife seems to function as much as a surrogate mother for him in his old age.  Later, the central relationship in the film switches to that of a young boy and his mother.  It’s this bond that proves crucial to a happy future.  Old Joe is a creature born of blood, someone who has killed his way to the top, and when his younger self is confronted by this his natural reaction is disgust, and this is the root of where the two grow apart.  

The crucial difference between these two sides of one time-shifted individual is that the younger Joe realises the consequences of his actions.  He realises that violence begets violence, the importance of communication, empathy and trust and finally comes to the conclusion that there is only one real way to stop this loop of misery perpetuating itself.

Joe on the job.
Johnson provides us with an extremely depressing yet grimly plausible vision of the future.  The US has embarked on an inexorable downward spiral and the future here is a visual echo of the Great Depression of the 1930s.  The cities are filled with squalid ‘tent cities’ reminiscent of Hoovervilles packed full of desperately poor people.  Contrasted with them is an opulent, wealthy and snobbish upper class who pass their time with material goods, empty thrill seeking and drug addiction.  The state of the world in general is never directly explained, but we can infer several things from the production design.  Nearly all of the cars are retro-fitted with solar panels, and these panels seem plastered over most available surfaces, the climate has changed so much that it’s now possible to grow sugar cane in the US and the currency bears the face of Chairman Mao.  It’s a damn miserable world to live in, and with the advent of time travel, one that’s to some extent parasitically living off a slightly better future.  The more gold and silver that's sent to the past, the more it fuels the loopers, who are a load of fucked up semi-psychopaths.  If these are the people the past is empowering, then no wonder the future is so screwed up.  It creates an inexorable feedback loop that seems to make things worse and worse the longer it goes on.  The worse the future is, the more bodies get sent back and the richer the mobsters in the present become, in effect making the future worse.

Jeff Daniels as 'Abe' and Noah Segen as 'Kid Blue'
This is a film to be admired, one that wears the clothes of a science fiction action thriller but subverts expectations and goes the philosophical distance in exploring the consequences of its characters actions.  In my view Johnson correctly identifies how cycles or loops of self perpetuating violence function and the demonstrates misery they spawn irrelevant of whether the motivation for committing them was good or evil.   Aside from the philosophy, this is a film with intelligent and effective production design, some brilliant performances and smart direction that knows exactly how much information to feed to the audience at any one time.  It uses the language of cinema to effectively deconstruct much of the thrill of the violence inherent to the genre.  We see Old Joe escape after being zapped back in time twice.  Once in exciting, quick cut closeup where we see him expertly, gracefully and with supernatural confidence knock his younger self out, and once in one long-shot, where this gracefulness and poise is revealed to be clumsy and comedic.  This motif of exposing our bloodlust as something foolish and immature carries into the overarching architecture of the film as a whole, especially given the deceleration of the the films latter half.  It's a remarkable feat of directing to make a film that consciously decides to become less thrilling, while never letting loose the grip on the minds of its audience.  I loved 'Looper'!

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