TIFF Review: 'Looper'
Even with time travel, time can run out…
Selected as the opening night Gala of the Toronto International Film Festival, Rian Johnson's "Looper" takes many of the concerns he addressed, smartly and obliquely and snappily, in his earlier films "Brick" and "The Brothers Bloom" and puts them on a canvas as vast as all of space and time. The budget is bigger, and so are the stars and the ideas, but the themes and topics -- family, fate, character, storytelling -- are all woven through every scene. "Looper" has a sure-fire hook and takes place in a big, grim tomorrow, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, our narrator, sets that hook hard with the first two sentences of his opening narration that plays with tense to set the tension: "Time travel hasn't been invented yet. But 30 years from now, it will have been …"
The basic plot tells us that Gordon-Levitt's character Joe is a "Looper" -- a specialized kind of killer and clean-up man in the world of 2042. Joe gets told where to be and when, and then someone from the future -- someone the future's criminal world doesn't want around -- materializes hooded and bound. Joe shoots him, disposes of the body. Easy work, if you don't mind the philosophical implications. And the retirement plan -- because every Looper eventually gets sent his older self to kill, "closing the loop," and then retires rich and only concerned with when, exactly, 30 years from now he'll be hooded, bound and sent to the past to be killed by himself.
Joe's loop-closing, though, goes awry, meaning his older self -- Bruce Willis -- is now on the lam. And can't simply kill Gordon-Levitt to get him off his trail -- because then he wouldn't exist. And the organization either wants old Joe dead or new Joe around to use as leverage on old Joe, because changing young Joe's future changes the past of Old Joe. Or, as Joe's boss Abe (Jeff Daniels), sent from the future on a one-way ticket to run the organization in the past, notes "This time travel crap just … fries your brain like an egg." And so Joe is on the run, both of him, and that leads to a woman named Sara (Emily Blunt) raising a son (Pierce Gagnon) alone on a farm far from strangers … and close to their own secrets.
But for all of this big, burly, universe-twisting paradox and Butterfly Effect stuff, "Looper" takes the essential theme of film noir, where our narrator invariably notes "I don't trust anyone but me," and twists it until it's changed: What if there's more than one version of you? Who do you trust then? Johnson's direction is strong and sterling and, for all of the effects and sci-fi ideas, subtle; a grisly demonstration in altered timelines happens without a single CGI effect, and at one point a fade to black implies a reset button for all of creation. But it's the emotional underpinnings that work best -- issues of trust and responsibility, survival and its cost. Willis isn't just fighting to stay alive, he's fighting to stay alive without losing his memories of the life he lived -- and Gordon-Levitt, having not lived that life, is hardly sentimental about it.
There are, to be sure, a few plot questions you'll puzzle over in the wee small hours after "Looper;" there's also plot threads that feel like dangling filigree until they twine with other seemingly loose plot threads into a strangler's rope that Johnson fashions around your neck, tight. The decision to enhance Gordon-Levitt with prosthetics so he might more resemble Willis feels a little strained, at first, and then disappears as irrelevant -- and Willis, who's recently sleep-quipped or sleep-shot through too many movies, feels energized and excited here. Joe -- both of him -- is no hero, and as he fights to survive -- whether for the next 30 years or the next 30 seconds -- he does ugly things. And even as he questions them, we can see what it's doing to him. Both hims.
It's a glib comparison, and ignores some facts, but "Looper," is, like "Inception," a visually stunning mental joyride full of visions and feelings and rules and cheats and life and death from a director whose prior work could only suggest the heights of creation -- and depths of feeling -- he reaches here "Looper" stands with "The Hunger Games" and "Sound of My Voice" as not only one of the best science-fiction films of the year, but one of the best films, period. Johnson, with the help of Gordon-Levitt, Willis and Blunt, has given us his finest film to date; even better, he's done it with such style, feeling and guts that you can't help but wish you could glimpse his future films, now that Hollywood and the audience have "Looper" as proof he's got what it takes to hang on to the subtle, smart ideas under the explosion even as he delivers a big blockbuster movie.