Friday, October 5, 2012


                    “Time to die.”  (Roy the Replicant [Rutger Hauer], Blade Runner [1982])

                                        Review by Ken Burke

Criminals in the distant future send victims to our near future to be disposed of, but sometimes the victim is the older version of the killer.  How’s that for a premise?

            You’d think that Bruce Willis would have had enough of time travel after his travails in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995) where, as future prisoner James Cole, he bounces like a pinball through the 20th century in an attempt to prevent a planet-wide plague from killing off most humans only to die in the process while his young boy self witnesses the murder (and apparently is traumatized enough by the event to have blocked it out of his memory, seeing it again only in inaccurate dreams that don’t reveal the paradoxical truth until we catch up to the killing with him at the end of the film), but here he is back again, as Joe shooting from future (to us at least—2074—but the present for him) to past (for him, but still future for us—2044), trying to avoid being literally shot, but this time the gunman is himself, that is the younger self of this “killer” Joe (not to be confused with the infinitely different assassin in William Friedkin‘s Killer Joe, reviewed in my August 30, 2012 blog posting), played by a slightly prosthetically-altered Joseph Gordon-Levitt (whom you know most recently as Robin, if you’re ready for the post-Christopher Nolan Batman continuation) in Rian Johnson’s Looper (and if I haven’t totally lost you with the winding path of this opening sentence then I’ve failed to capture the “What the f___?” quality in evidence here, a “most strange and extraordinary” film, to borrow a line from Sally Bowles [Liza Minnelli] in Cabaret [Bob Fosse, 1972]).  So, just to fill in the gaps from my William Faulkner-wannabe opening statement, as our world continues to devolve into near-anarchy, the norm in futuristic sci-fi films, most of Mitt Romney’s negligible 47% are fast becoming the completely dispossessed economic 99%, even in middle-American Kansas where what may be Kansas City has evolved into a more Manhattanesque metropolis but only the wealthy share the benefits while street vagabonds are likely to get run over by their uncaring “betters.”

            One of the surest ways to get comfortable in the moneyed class in 2044 is to trade in your ethics for slim suits, fast cars, and a supply of eyedrop drugs as you enter the brotherhood of “loopers,” cold-blooded killers who wait for victims from 2074 (a time when it’s clear that China is the place where you should have made your investments) to pop up in a cornfield at a designated time so they can be killed on the spot (they arrive hooded with hands tied behind so there’s not much time to even take one last breath before the looper fires his clunky but lethal blunderbuss, removes the silver ingots payment from the victim’s jacket, then burns the body so that the future mob has rid themselves of their enemies, yet there’s no habeas corpus evidentiary problem).  As time travel doesn’t yet exist in 2044 this is all a one-way operation, completely controlled by a harsh criminal force in 2074 where temporal-relocation devices are contraband, operated only by the mob (proving that old NRA adage has evolvability:  “If time machines are outlawed, then only outlaws will have time machines”) so that they can rid themselves of their enemies with no worry of legal retribution.  Unfortunately for the loopers, the head mobster in 2074 has decided he wants to purge them also to prevent any connection to these clandestine killings so suddenly Young Joe is confronted with Old Joe and the games begin.

            Old Joe’s not ready to go, though, so he somehow eludes his future captors (this is one of the plot points where an otherwise fascinating film skips wildly over its own logic as best I followed it), goes on the time trip himself prepared to catch Young Joe off guard (after all, he does have 30 years more experience in being a hard-hearted homicide machine), then escapes to hunt down the boy who will become the future’s criminal head honcho in order to kill him, change the future, and resurrect the woman he loved before she died through mob-dictated actions.  Meanwhile, Young Joe is just as hell-bent on finishing the job because allowing such a dangerous space-time disruption could prove to be a major tear in the fabric of the universe (the concern of his 2044 head handler, Abe (played very effectively by a not-seen-nearly-enough-these-days, at least in anything that much of anyone’s paid to see, Jeff Daniels), which make Young Joe a target for the really ice-in-the-veins assassins who just want to rid both worlds of their Joes, even while our protagonists are furiously on their frantic quests for putting their lives back in order.  Along the way both Joes end up at the farm house of Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son, with Young Joe attracted to her (and grateful for her assistance in treating his wounds) and Old Joe determined to kill the kid and Mom too if she gets in the way.  Blunt is just as intense as Gordon-Levitt (who’s really making a name for himself in Christopher Nolan high-concept action films, with Inception [2010] and The Dark Knight Rises to his recent credit) and Willis (a master of this tough-guy stuff since the original Die Hard [John McTiernan, 1988]), so tensions are high, bullets fly, and Einstein watches curiously from some “distant constellation that’s dying in a corner of the sky” (Paul Simon, “The Boy in the Bubble,” from Graceland, 1986).  All in all, the concept of Looper is engaging, the execution (so to speak, although it takes the entire film to resolve the paradox of the parallel Joes) is flawless, and the total experience is a winner—although I still haven’t figured out what happens right in the middle when we get a second scene of Old Joe arriving from 2074, bound for death as usual, blown away by Young Joe as the job should be, then his life carries on for the ensuring 30 years until disaster comes, his wife is killed, and he goes on the 2044 journey that we’ve already seen him in, this time escaping his younger self.  I’ve been able to mostly figure out the complexities of time-travel conundrum films (even the hard-to-follow Primer [Shane Carruth, 2004] which really requires attention because it was made on such a low budget—originally under $10,000 before it was bought at Sundance and enhanced a bit for wide release—that it left a lot just implied rather than displayed), but this double-Joe-assassination scene in the cornfield has so far eluded me, although if I don’t obsess about it I can just enjoy the unique, trippy experience that Looper allows.

            That enjoyment is for those of us on the outside of the madhouse box of these characters, though, as everything in their carefully-constructed criminal empire—as with distraught Abe in the photo to the right—is threatened by the instability of botched executions such as what happens with the Joes, a problem referred to in their business as “letting the loop run,” a situation that can also occur from the inability to kill your future self, as we see with Joe’s killer colleague Seth (Paul Dano) who just can’t pull the trigger on Old Seth, providing a subplot of additional chaos within Looper and the great post-screening conversation starter:  “Would you rather live day-to-day, never knowing what the future will bring and how much longer—or shorter—your life will be, or would you prefer to know that you’ve got a guaranteed 30 more years to do with as you will because the laws of physics (as best we obey them in a scenario such as Looper) assure you that you’ll have to live that long before your appointed assassination time?”  Along with that, though, you have the corollary question:  “Knowing that you have that next 30 years coming to you, can you pull the trigger on yourself, even though failing to do so condemns your older self to starting over again in a past he’s already lived through but now must endure again, for whatever unknown number of years—or days—trying to avoid the younger self and all that younger self will encounter so as to not screw up the future in ways unintended?”  (And for a really unsettling dose of what that can be like I highly encourage you to read Steven King’s very looong 11/22/63 [2011] about time travel with the goal of preventing the JFK assassination).  You won’t have time to consider such complexities while you’re watching Looper, which has its own unexpected conclusion just like 11/22/63, because it all flows too quickly in a successful manner to allow you any contemplation time, but that leads to a double payoff:  a great viewing experience while it’s unfolding and then tasty food for thought after the fact.  If you’re convinced that time travel isn’t possible then Looper will just be a fanciful load of lunacy, but if you’re willing to see the dramatization of one of the most perplexing scenarios that life might ever be able to offer, I predict Looper will throw you for quite a loop.

            Big-time spoiler alert!  Really, if you haven’t seen the film yet and ever intend to then don’t read this last paragraph yet.  OK, you’ve been sufficiently warned, so let me note a last couple of quandaries that I have about the manner in which Johnson brought closure to his twisty tale of temporal dislocations.  At the end, Young Joe is so distraught at the scenario that unfolds before his eyes as Old Joe kills the targeted boy’s (Cid, played by Pierce Gagnon) mother in an attempt to kill Cid (reminiscent of how Mary Corleone [Sofia Coppola] dies instead of her targeted father Michael [Al Pacino] at the finale of The Godfather: Part III [Francis Ford Coppola, 1990])—thereby setting in motion the wrath that Sid, the Rainmaker, will bring in his “reign” of terror in 2074—that Joe kills himself to erase everything:  Sara’s death, Cid’s future viciousness which is fueled by his extreme TK (telekinetic) abilities (we’re talking Steven King again here, as in Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of King’s 1974 novel Carrie, with Sissy Spacek as the tormented high school girl who finally unleashes horrific fury on her cruel classmates), and the previously/yet-to-be lived life of Old Joe and his wife (played by Summer Qing), thereby denying himself any options with Sara now or the wife of his future, sacrificing everything about himself in order to save the next generation’s society from the harsh hand of Cid (and if what I’ve just described gives you some resonance with either version of Total Recall [Paul Verhoeven, 1990, with Arnold Schwarzenegger; Len Wiseman, 2012, with Colin Farrell] then you’ve got a good idea of what fascinating concepts await you in Looper).  All of this is very noble and satisfying unto itself, but yields yet two more inconsistencies:  (1) Joe shoots himself in the cornfield but suddenly his body is back several hundred yards at his overturned van, and (2) as Sara comes to comfort him she runs her hand through his hair, just as he remembers his mother doing when he was a boy, asking his minimally-invested sexmate Suzie (Piper Perabo) to do so in an earlier scene rather than make love with him.  My wonderful wife, Nina, is convinced that this indicates somehow that Sara is Joe’s mother as well as Cid’s, a conclusion I can’t support with any narrative evidence from Looper although it’s a speculation that does haunt me as an even more intriguing final twist, but one that I can’t find an explanation for any more than I can figure out why we saw Old Joe travel from 2074 to 2044 twice, once escaping his intended looper fate and once being killed as usual by Young Joe. 

            Another delicious irony of this film, that when your looper self is sent back to your past you know, in a manner that brings you the ultimate pain, that the killer is going to be you—although that does generate another unresolved question:  “Why does the killer have to be you when there are other loopers who could do the deed?”  I’ll just have to guess that it gives the loopers a constant sense of their own mortality and subservience to the Rainmaker so that they don’t become too self-enamored with their own seeming invulnerability in the class-bound world of conquerors and outcasts that they inhabit.  None of these distractions are deal-breaker concerns for me in a film with so much intrigue and successful deliverance but they are just annoying enough to where I had to really think hard about going to the level of 4 stars.  Ultimately the film deserves high praise despite its own unclosed loops so if you’ve gotten this far you’ve likely already seen it or, if not, you’re interested enough so that maybe you can watch carefully and help me get past my “huh?” moments to fully appreciate Looper’s fascinating premise, which I find a bit undercut in final delivery.  If so, leave some comments please.

            If you’d like to explore Looper further here are some suggested links: (short interview with director Rian Johnson and some physicists about the possibility of time travel)

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  1. Another winning film and a Sci Fi rarity where plot, production and acting are not overwhelmed by the computers of Industrial Light and Magic.

    Concerning the double-Joe-assassination issue, I believe the second scene is simply how young Joe managed to become old Joe, complete with a 30 year progression leading to the Chinese lover.

    The first Joe-assassination scene is what happens when old Joe decides, based on his knowledge of the "past", to change things. Which he did by living through the assassination.

    Of course we all know changes in time travel will disrupt future events. In this case, the chase causes young Joe to meet Sara, the advanced TK mother of the future "Rainmaker". Sara heals young Joe, he protects her and the son, they become lovers at her bidding and ultimately young Joe elects to save her from certain death, at the expense of his own future with her or anyone else.

    There is hope by Sara and perhaps young Joe that the future rainmaker will be changed by not experiencing his mother's death (which he already had "seen") and perhaps the son becomes a force for good in a rapidly devolving and anarchistic society.

    My take is Sara is not otherwise related to Joe, although she does mention early that she knows about Loopers and she quickly surmises that young Joe is a Looper. Young Joe seems surprised she even knows about Loopers, but that angle is not further explored, at least not until Part 2 in a theater near you. Speculation: a future advanced TK time traveler and Sara produced the Rainmaker?

    Finally the body/van issue is probably nothing but film cuts at a time of audience surprise. It appears Sara was looking at the van in the concluding scene, without Joe's body in view. She goes to the van and surveys the silver and gold on the ground, perhaps with an idea on how to use it to protect her son. She finally walks away from the van to young Joe who is lying on the ground some distance away. Here she looks mournfully at her recent lover and protector and strokes his hair.

    I am sure she or her son could rectify this whole sequence by introducing change from the future (part 3). Since Looper is doing pretty well at the box office, I would suggest the availability of the actors may determine the ultimate fate of Joe, Sara and the Rainmaker.

  2. Hey, rj, thanks for such substantial comments.

    You immediately reveal the problem I have in watching films, trying to enjoy the viewing experience while still taking enough notes to make sense of what I saw afterwards, which doesn't always work as effectively as it might (and doing it because I'm always wondering if those Wikipedia or IMDb summaries--if they even exist for a specific film--are fully accurate, because at times I know they aren't). This could easily be why I assumed that dying Young Joe had somehow transported from the cornfield (shades of "North by Northwest"; I should have noted that) back to his ruined van when maybe that spatial dislocation doesn't happen at all and I just assumed it did while looking back and forth between screen and clandestinely-illuminated notebook in the theatre. Good point!

    You make reasonable observations that, in the reflected-mirror world that this time travel story presents, the first time we see Old Joe escape his own assassination it's because he didn't really escape the first time (which we see a bit later in the film when he's easily killed by Young Joe) but he carries that memory with him 30 years into the future so that he's better prepared when the assassination team come for him and he can somehow thwart their usual procedure with their preparation for his travel to the past for execution (I'm still not sure how he pulled that off his escape but let's not get too picky with a really enjoyable film here, although if his old self dies in the past during the first go-round and then can change that timeline when it's set to happen in his 2074 world then we've really got a situation that needs Einstein to referee. If you can't even count on death being certain, then all that leaves is taxes--but those probably follow you into the afterlife anyway. Sigh!).

    If what we speculate above is so, then the escape from his younger self that we see Old Joe accomplish twice in the film is really just a repetition on screen of the same event (like what Bergman gives us with the twice-shown shattering confrontation between Elizabeth and Alma close to the end of "Persona"--if you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it as my all-time #2 behind "Citizen Kane" [sorry "Vertigo," you haven't triumphed in my little universe]). It doesn't really happen that Old Joe escapes death from Young Joe twice. We just see the same event in two different contexts: it's not easy to follow but plausible when you mull it over for awhile.

    And, rj, maybe you're also right that Cid will become a force for good in the future society after his mother's traumatic death is erased from history (Anybody willing to try such a reset on Bane to help keep half of Gotham City from needing to be rebuilt? Or maybe in these troubled employment times the urban reconstruction crew needs these steady jobs). I love your sequels plotlines for how this story could continue and I wouldn't be surprised if it does (especially after learning that my confusion about how "Prometheus" seemingly leads into "Alien," despite some continuity gaps between end of the former and beginning of the latter, are resolved by Ridley Scott in an interview when he admits that he'd need a couple more films to complete the transition).

    As you suggest, we may see this crew again, reunited through the magic of time-space continuum conundrums and box-office desire, which wouldn't be such a bad thing at all given the quality of this "Looper" episode.

    Anyway, thanks again for such great dialogue; maybe I'll see you at "Looper: Part 2, Reboot of the Rainmaker."

  3. Everybody’s good, the writing is top-notch, and the direction kept me on the edge of my seat, but there was a human element that just didn’t come around full-circle for me. I really liked this movie, but I didn’t love it and that’s a bit disappointing considering all of the hype. Good review Ken.

  4. Hi dtmmr, thanks for the comment. I have to admit that my admiration came after a bit of contemplation, especially with having to ponder how much those unanswered plot points really bothered me, but ultimately I leaned in "Looper" 's favor. Maybe it'll seem better in retrospect to you when they get rj's sequels released. Ken