Rian Johnson’s time traveling movie, Looper is about a fight in the future, for the past. In it, two Joes, the same man, have 30 years between them; Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) lives in 2044, Old Joe (Bruce Willis) in 2074. That Gordon-Levitt and Willis don’t really resemble each other – with or without the prosthetic chin and make-up Gordon-Levitt was required to wear to look like a younger Willis – doesn’t matter. It’s more realistic that they don’t look alike; time makes them different people.

When we first see him, in 2044, Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is standing in a barren cane field, under a dark blue sky. He’s cradling a ridiculous barrel-like gun, called a blunderbuss. A moment later, a kneeling man materializes before him, his hands tied and a material bag over his head. Joe shoots him. Throughout the following scenes, I couldn’t forget the curt impersonality of that opening shot and so the future lost its shock. One might simultaneously recognize and reject Johnson’s crumbling future world, where the declining economy has poured homeless people – who civilization continues to ignore – into overcrowded streets. Johnson’s model for 2044 is an unnamed, dingy city, somewhere in Kansas, though he moves as freely between city and country, as he does time zones and Joes.

Joe is a looper, an assassin that disposes of bodies for a mob operating thirty years into the future when time travel has been made possible but, its powers realized, immediately banned. As technological advancement has made getting rid of bodies virtually impossible, the past has become a trashcan where future crime lords send their victims to be discarded. The problem with Joe’s character is that what he does defines him. We learn little about him, save that he was abandoned by his mother as a child and that, in lieu of this identity, he was given a new one – along with a gun – by looper lord, Abe (Jeff Daniels). But looping doesn’t give Joe an identity, just a flimsy routine of existence. A typical day for Joe – which the camera moves us through in dizzying montage – includes morning coffee, murdering someone from the future, shame sex with stripper girlfriend, Suzie (Piper Perabo, resurrecting her role in Coyote Ugly), partying with friends, and dropping drugs in his eyes.

While the past is the future’s wasteland – and the site for Joe’s junkie exploits – it’s not bereft of opportunity for Old Joe (Willis), who returns to 2044 to kill the Rainmaker, a menacing character “closing” all the loops – sending back the future selves of loopers to be killed by their former selves – in the future. When Old Joe returns to 2044, Joe is confronted with closing his own loop (the only rule in looping is “never let your target escape, even if your target is you,” and the penalty’s death) but he has a crisis of confidence, and lets Old Joe go. Though, later, learning of Old Joe’s plans to kill the Rainmaker – who, in 2044, is still a child – Joe makes it his mission to stop him. Only when he’s challenged by himself is Joe ambivalent about pulling the trigger, and it’s this journey, from self-absorption to self-acceptance – and even self-rejection – that compels us, as we realize Looper is an impossible battle; it isn’t about a man fighting against who he will become, but rather, who he already is.

This journey leads him Joe a farmhouse, and into the arms of its owner, Sara, played superbly by Emily Blunt, who deftly balances Sara’s toughness with vulnerability, and finds nuance in a seemingly effortless Midwest drawl. In Sara – who, like Joe’s mother, abandoned her son – we find a surrogate mother to explain Joe, as her relationship with her son (the future Rainmaker) stirs Joe in a way that suggests his own fractured relationship with his mother. We see Joe’s wounds reopen as he sits on the edge of Sara’s bed, post-coital. As Sara talks about her regrets of leaving her son, Joe’s pained, vacant look tells us that he has nothing to say; he’s no more capable of offering Sara his sympathy than he is of forgiving his mother for abandoning him.

Since both Joes are wound up in their pasts – which we’re not given a clear picture of – Looper never really puts its viewer in the present. In his attempt to close the movie’s loop, Johnson ultimately fails to connect the two Joes, and doesn’t allow enough time to develop a relationship between them. One scene in a diner comes close, though. We remember that the two Joes, sitting opposite one another as though with a mirror between them, are the same person; they adopt the same mannerisms, and order the same thing off the menu: steak and eggs, “scrambled and rare” – with a side of symbolism, from Johnson. But the diner scene, cut short to give way to a tiresome action sequence, is Johnson’s missed opportunity for character cooking. If only Johnson had them stay at the diner and order a second plate of eggs. The two Joes don’t interact enough, and because we know so little about them, they don’t become full human beings, but rather versions of themselves; it’s impossible to relate to either one of them. The younger Joe’s inscrutability reminded me of Ryan Gosling’s character, Driver, in Drive. Yet, where Driver is beguiling, “a real hero and a human being” (as the message pumped into Drive by its soundtrack song tells us), Joe’s ambiguous character is Johnson’s ruse in Looper. We may know more about Joe than we do Driver, but where we’re given a name, we’re not given an identity.

Like its characters, Johnson’s movie is half-baked. Where films like Drive and Pulp Fiction were style and substance, Looper’s just style – and too much of it. Looper was trying far too hard to be too many things that it couldn’t just be. In one scene, Abe scorns Joe’s fashion sense; wearing a leather jacket, shirt and retro tie, Joe looks every inch a glamorized gangster-cum-garbage man. Abe says to Joe, “the movies that you’re dressing like are just copying other movies.” The same could be said of Johnson’s exercise in pastiche. Joe’s a vagrant dressed up as a murderer dressed up as a gangster; Looper is a time traveling feature dressed as a gangster film in the guise of a blockbuster action thriller. Perhaps Johnson’s more faithful to the future, after all; he is just as unpredictable and difficult to discern.

One Response to “Looper”
  1. I loved this movie and welcomed Bruce Willis’s return to sci-fi. Friends that have also seen it have been more harsh than you in their criticism which has me bewildered. Each to their own I guess.

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