Sunday, October 7, 2012

Why Johnson's Looper(2012) is a powerful post-summer gift

"Thirty years from now, time travel will be possible.."

- Only, it will immediately be outlawed, and only truly popular amongst those working on the black market, and in underworld circuits.

In a dingy, economically shattered future, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a well regarded career bagman of sorts, running a steady intake of kill jobs from his underworld overlords. Only these bosses are from the farther future, sending back their targets to his era for clean , evidence-free exterminations. Aside from dependence on a nice car, and a nagging drug habit, his concerns for those he is tasked with taking out have been little to zero. Only this comes to a head after a colleague fails to commit a "closed loop"; a boss' final means of tying up loose ends with former employees. With such a limited number of trusted allies, the screws tighten even harder when Joe himself is faced with an even greater shock, the appearance of his older self(Bruce Willis), without the usual bonds and face coverage, gold instead of the usual silver, and a clear mission in this time frame--prevent the future.

Rian Johnson's third film after the still impressive indie fave Brick, and the fun retro-caper The Brothers Bloom, is an at-times brilliant piece of fantasy pulp that gets plenty of mileage out of what could have been one problematic premise. It might be good to at the outset make it clear that time travel plots by their very nature are always inherently flawed. Whether it be one theory being used or another, it always leads back to time being not being a matter of science so much as philosophy. So when I make assessments on how this film works, or what manner of ways that it makes an effect, it is largely within Johnson's ability to make these conceptual leaps fundamentally human ones. In the hands of so many other filmmakers, it seems so easy to have rendered this into another standard chase piece, punctuated by time travel, but as it is, Looper remains at it's heart a film more concerned with our own investments in the moment. The ties in our collective memories of where we were at one moment, and that split second decision that dramatically alters course. In many respects, the plot structure in many ways resembles Minority Report in that it plays the lead character against a system they thought they fully understood, toward an irrevocable choice, only without the ever-safe Spielbergian ejection seat. So what begins as a nifty twist on gritty future noir, Johnson's tale (which he also wrote) is ultimately a dark western-style redemption tale with a morally ambiguous coating.

Complicating matters for Joe, are not only his localized boss (Jeff Daniels), and his small army of gunslinging, black coat sporting "Gat Men", but also a frighteningly powerful criminal entity known only as The Rainmaker. In an era where advances of technology might have altered humanity to the brink of telekinetic activity, this unseen force seems to be at the center of what has created this schism, and has brough older Joe into the same time frame as his youthful counterpart, willing to use any and all means necessary to undo a horrible wrong, whether the younger him likes it or not.  This wild twist alone is fuel for quite a bit of the film's thematic juice, as we are given equal reasons to sympathize, and dislike both renditions of Joe. He is a man split into mirror halves, both shaped by their circumstances, and unwilling to bend to what could very well mean an out for more than merely them. Loopers have been privy to this possibility, but it is clearly a bad thing for all parties if one should fail to kill their quarry. In the case of Joe, and the twists and turns spewing out from this rendition of events, it is less an exercise in time travel science so much as an engrossing new spin on the tale of people, unwilling to see past the fortunes they have been given in light of a possible gamble on an unforeseeable future.

Young Joe's frantic need to escape his well-alerted employers (as well as a stunning meeting between Joe and his elder self) leads him to a farm on the city outskirts, where he might find some answers. Only he meets lone mother (Emily Blunt), and child, living a simple life, but harboring a secret that could either make or break both Joes. It is perhaps this section (classic movie lack of subtlety kicks into high gear at this point--Farm, Mother, etc..) that offers up some of the clunkier aspects of the story, but the momentum granted by the performances, and the piling on of tension works well enough that a majority of it becomes easy to overlook. Suddenly, images of a human response to James Cameron's Terminator comes to mind, making Looper something of an expansion of similar ideas and concerns inherent in that film. Could a man, desperate for release from this tightening noose truly see it in his heart to kill a child? (possibly multiple) Without going any further into spoil-centric territory, the larger questions of how far we would go to maintain our favorite parts of our past, as well as what we would do if we met our younger selves, and how that might go over, reigns supreme, making the journey of the to Joes into something akin to two noir antiheroes battling it out over their inabilities to let go.

As the story begins, young Joe was in a place of comfort, as hellish and empty as it is, he is a man willing to do terrible things to maintain his part in what life has granted him. We see him hit a truly low point before the paradoxical meeting changes everything. Unwilling to self sacrifice, his isolation is made complete when he has noone to share his years of stashed silver with. Only when old Joe comes into the fray, and his entire world is torn to shreds, is he forced to improvise himself a life despite his constant protest. He is a tough guy, but still very much a kid. And old Joe's world is a mirror possibility of that once "stable" choice, unraveling bit by bit due to this Rainmaker business, and he is driven, unyielding, and confident that his path is infinitely more important than his more reckless, drug-addled younger self could ever realize. Johnson's film works at breakneck speed to catch us up on what this set of life choices has created, and makes the argument that whatever time we are in during the course of our lives, we are almost always different people with diverging sets of similar map milestones. From long held dreams of learning one language, and later mastering another, every little change..enormous.

The film delivers not only a wild and thoughtful premise, but some truly fun performances by not only JGL and Willis (in classic, near-Eastwood form here), but also of Daniel's turn as bad local boss, Abe, not to mention Noah Segan's archetypal role as an eager little cowboy, eager to make his name. Carrying on the original melding between retro crime drama, dirty western, and Twilight Zone bizarre, Emily Blunt  and Pierce Gagnon remain the story's human  center as two seemingly inocuous people caught amidst the affairs of criminals.

And this is perhaps where the film, for some, may wield a majority of the latter third's story issues. We are told early within the film, that a small percentage of the population has now attained mild telekinetic abilities (dubbed "TK" for short). It is this strange addition to the story that never really figures out a way to gel properly with the unfolding story. Even as the mystery of the murderous Rainmaker reaches center stage, it still feels inorganic to the whole of the time travel, and subsequent noir superstructure. And seeing as how much of what young Joe's life seems ready for a wholly new life path, what transpires never makes any properly built dramatic sense. While many of the choices regarding the farm, and his circumstances with the Blunt and Gagnon carry a certain amount of metaphorical sense, it becomes a little harder to swallow a film's need to pile on elements of the fantastical on top of each other. As visually impressive as it is, it really feels like an indulgent extra. Also hindering things, is the tacked on relationship between JGL, and Blunt that never truly forms in any believable fashion. It simply feels like a studio note, and in no way congruous to the story that befalls them on screen.

And yet these problems only provide minor dissonance in a symphony of ideas and emotions that are sweeping, thought provoking, and perhaps thrilling for those seeking greener pasteurs in those multiplex plains. Johnson's surehanded performance remains clear, even when it all borders on knowingness of Willis' image as a perennial badass. The action, visuals, and attitude make up nicely for what almost renders a balanced meal overcooked. Make no mistake, Looper is the film I most had hoped this summer would provide. So happy it came out to remind us how thoughtful spectacle could actually be.

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