Hello folks. It’s been a while since I’ve done a movie review here, and the short answer to why that is would be that I haven’t had much to say about movies for a while. Every movie was either precisely what I expected, everything I wanted, or just disappointing. Nothing particularly thought provoking or surprising, and thus I didn’t see a need to spew out short reviews that outline more or less what everybody else already expected. But here’s a film that needs discussion. Here’s a film that finally gave me something different to think about and to discuss.
Looper blipped onto my radar quite early in its development, as both Rian Johnson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (unabashed man crush) were attached to the project. As production hummed along and we got bits and pieces of information, it continued to intrigue me. What a clever premise for a time travel movie – one way ticket travel ending in death for the traveler by way of hired gun. Time travel is always given a glamorous treatment in films; here’s one of the more realistic and original uses ever imagined.
The film I saw, however, was quite far different from my expectations. There was still the rather harsh and shifty depiction of time travel as a means to body disposal for future criminal organizations. But there was also a grim depiction of future society, a cynical and humorous depiction of genetic mutations, and a rather intricate display of morality.
I’m a big fan of Children of Men and its decidedly dark interpretation of a potential future for humanity. It’s a chillingly beautiful film that I would recommend to everybody, and Looper‘s visuals reminded me quite heavily of that film. Drab gray tones are abundant, and decaying, cold industrial sites and overcast skies dominate the mise-en-scene for the bulk of the film. The titular loopers hold a position of some status, it appears, while there is rampant poverty and homelessness, to the point where the term “vagrant” is exceedingly common. There’s an interesting world on display here, and that the film only scratches the surface makes it all the more intriguing. How did it get this way? Looper is focused on 2044 and the 30 years that follow it – what about the 32 years it takes to get from us to then? The film offers no answers, but it’s a chilling prospect that makes the world a constant puzzle, and fortunately not a frustrating one.
One of the biggest surprises in the film was the presence of the TK mutation, or telekinesis. It’s a common trope of sci-fi and fantasy films, but its presence here was wholly unexpected. It was also handled in a wildly original way – as Joe tells us, when the mutation first appeared people thought it was going to be a big deal, that we’d be seeing superheroes. Instead, all that society gets is a bunch of douchebags who think they are amazing because they can levitate quarters. I loved this – other films portray genetic mutations of this sort as some big, society-altering paradigm. Instead, Johnson wisely restricts it to a societal disappointment, little more than an amusing trifle. That it ultimately becomes critical to the plot of the film doesn’t diminish this, but rather makes it an impressive act of sleight of hand. It wasn’t until the reveal of the twist itself that – despite being gradually built up over the course of the film – I saw what was actually going on.
This is all well and good, but what elevated Looper from an original and exciting action film to one of my favorites of the year was its complex morality that avoided casting any of its characters in a strictly positive or negative light. This is a film with four distinct factions – you have present Joe (JGL), future Joe (Bruce Willis), the mob as led by Abe (Jeff Daniels), and Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son Cid. Each of them desire different ends, and each of them use similar means to get there: violence. The mob is perhaps the least morally ambiguous, as they are doing typical mob things. What gives them an ounce of humanity however is the apparent mercy of Abe. Offering to let Joe give up his friend Seth (an always welcome Paul Dano) or to take away half of Joe’s stashed silver. Abe does this instead of torturing Joe, and sets Joe off down a path of morality that will lead him to interesting places.
Future Joe is perhaps the most interesting. He’s presented as an antagonist, and a powerful force of destruction – in this he is incredibly effective. But Johnson expertly makes us care a great deal for him, perhaps as an extension of our care for the broken and lovable present Joe. The scene in which Johnson presents the 30 years of Joe’s life following the closure of his loop is immaculately crafted, showing us the ever broken present Joe and his evolution into a changed, repaired man – future Joe. So when he arrives we can’t really fault him. Even after he expresses his desire to kill children in order to prevent the rise of the Rainmaker, we STILL can’t fault him – not entirely, at least – because of the sheer passion behind his love for his unnamed wife, the woman who fixed him, in his words. The woman who saved his life, and was killed because of it. It would also indirectly save the lives of many people whose loops were closed and anyone caught in the crossfire of letting loops run. Worth the murder of a child? Hard to say – but the film makes it as difficult a decision for us as it is for future Joe himself. The scenes of him struggling to remember his wife in the wake of the changing past are particularly wrenching in this fashion.
Sara and Cid are a little less interesting, but only because Cid’s eventual future is constantly looming over him. Sara is very harsh and severe, and quite overprotective of her son. For a stretch in the middle of the film, we have a rather unfair dislike of Sara based on her own son’s perceptions of her coupled with her severity. As the film moves along, we grow to see just how scared and uncertain she is, and the question of her relative morals becomes more complex. She cares so deeply about her son and wants to keep him and others safe, hence their self imposed isolation. But is it worth protecting the child that will cause so much death and destruction in the future?
Present Joe has a lot less to be concerned about until his loop shows up, but once he does there’s an interesting moral conundrum he is presented with. As he says numerous times throughout, letting his loop run has effectively robbed him of his life. He isn’t really his loop yet, despite their being the same person – so it’s not truly his fault that his life has been ripped away. He is perfectly justified in desiring to kill his loop and thus return to his normal life. His journey, and ours, is less focused on his own moral growth and rather his coming to understand the morals of the rest of the cast – particularly future Joe and Sara. Upon realizing that Cid is the Rainmaker and just how destructive the child can be, he sides very briefly with future Joe in feeling that Cid needs to be killed – but he eventually comes to agree with Sara that Cid can be saved if raised by a good person. Present Joe recognizes the loop when it happens – future Joe killing Sara to get to Cid, but failing to kill the latter, turning Cid into the Rainmaker and perpetuating the vicious cycle that created them – and takes an action that, like so much of the film, rests solely in the realm of moral ambiguity: he kills himself and thus future Joe never existed. Rather than become the man who will do anything to save his wife, including killing a mother willing to die for her son, he chooses to end his own existence and save uncountably many lives. Was it justified to make future Joe, a man motivated only by his love for his wife and no malicious purpose, cease to have ever existed and thus rob his future wife of love to save the life of Sara and Cid? We can’t really say.
That, to me, is the strength of Looper. It casts no judgment and asks the audience to cast no judgment. It simply tells us a story and shows us these characters and their motivations, moral greys and all. That is has such extreme emotions in its characters while outright refusing to take a stance is its ultimate success, and something few films do.
There’s more I could say – I could talk about the film’s refusal to get wrapped around the axle in time-travel mechanics, the stellar performances by almost all the cast, and the great makeup job done to JGL to make him look uncannily like a young Bruce Willis – but it would undermine the points I just made. Looper is a bastion of moral ambiguity and character motivation, and a stunning film.* * * *