Thursday, 18 October 2012
FILM REVIEW: Looper
"Your face looks backwards."
Whilst I was putting together my initial thoughts on Rian Johnson's latest Looper starring It boy Joseph Gordon Levitt, and Bruce Willis as younger and older versions of the same person trapped in a never ending cycle of the same story, it struck me that actually two of my favourite films are time loop-ers: Triangle and The Butterfly Effect. So surely this must be a genre that I really enjoy and get a kick out of, enjoying and revelling in the paradoxes that the narrative creates, and desperately trying to solve the puzzle only to realise that the film is way ahead of you and has closed off all the exits. That's the mark of a great time loop film - whilst Looper is excellent at action, suspense and a brilliant dual genre flick, it lacks the depth of my two favourites to really stand up as a classic. As many have written already, just enjoy the ride and please just stop yourself from picking all the holes apart in the aftermath as it will only lead to despair.
I was a big fan of Johnson's debut Brick (in fact, I believe it was the first film I ever saw at the HPPH - n'aww), despite the mumbling, and whilst missing out on his second feature The Brothers Bloom I reunite just as Gordon-Levitt does with him for Looper, which has been universally acclaimed by all who have seen it only leading to my excitement.
Gordon-Levitt is Joe, a hedonistic junkie with a penchant for the high life from his job as a 'looper' - an assassin whose job it is to knock off criminals who are sent back from the future by his agency, in order to depose of the body and any trace of the man, as such activity is outlawed in the year 2074. It's well paid, solid work - the only catch being one of the men eventually sent back will be a future version of yourself, and killing them will close your loop, and allow you to enjoy the next 30 years of your life in relative freedom and luxury, but of course your future self will soon become you and your fate is already sealed. It's a great premise, one of my favourite things about the film, and for the first half it lets loose with the sci-fi element of it: we see the routine of Joe's life, what happens when you close your loop, what happens when you don't (an unfortunate Paul Dano), and we also see what happens when Joe originally kills his future self, fast forwarding to Bruce Willis in the year 2074 who is happily married and not best pleased when his past catches up with him and literally transports him back there. But something this time changes: and instead of bumping him off, young Joe hesitates and older Joe is allowed to escape and as the loop elongates to accommodate a whole new tangent in their life story, the film also flips genre and suddenly we're in a horror movie.
Many have said they prefer the first half of the film, though the second does add some fascinating layers. But I personally LOVED the second half of the film - I've always had a thing for cornfields (cough) and Looper boasts one of the freakiest kids I have ever seen on film when it all goes a bit bad seed on the audience. It's an extraordinary performance Johnson manages to coax out of Pierce Gagnon who is only FIVE years old - FIVE! He plays a ten year old in this for chrissake! The second half all but ditches the time travel stuff and instead focuses on a strange mutation of this present world - the fact that 10% of the world has telekinesis (or 'TK') and we see the most dangerous and violent form of this in young Cid (Gagnon), who lives with his devoted but terrified mother Sara (Emily Blunt, hugely reminiscent of a young Kate Winslet in this) in a remote farmhouse in the middle of this cornfield, and they soon become the stake between a protective younger Joe, and a hunting older Joe, which plays neatly into the film's core revelation of how do you escape a time loop?
I loved the near future distopian world that Rian Johnson creates for the younger Joe to inhabit, 2044, and where the majority of this film takes place. It has that stylish sleek Sin City feel about it, but also shows the widening divide between the rich (Gordon Levitt's character) and the poor (Piper Perabo's lap dancer and single mother). It's the small changes that bring it to life: bikes hover now, but cars are essentially the same; drug use is up but now it's ingested through eye drops; and pollution has led to this break out of TK, and users flaunting their skills by spinning nickels in the air with the power of the mind. It's well constructed, but yet I could have done without the montage near the very beginning which sets up younger Joe's character - a case of too much showing than telling, but I won't hold this against the film too much as it still manages to throw in some clever touches, such as young Joe's decision to retain half of his silver each time he finishes a job. The beginning also sets up two important characters - Seth (Dano), young Joe's closest friend who falls into catastrophe when he fails to polish off his future self and is instantly hunted down by their agency, headed by Jeff Daniels - a strange role for him - and rival looper Kid Blue (played by Noah Segan), whom I felt sure was going to turn out to be Jeff Daniels' younger self but it was a twist that was never quite unveiled. Young Joe's instinct to protect Seth is abandoned when a better offer comes along from his boss, which shows his ultimate selfishness and desire to look after number one as a prime personality trait (and unconsciously cause for the time loop). Perabo's dancer (and on-off fling) Suzie is also an important figure here, as her young boy will become one of the infant suspects Bruce Willis as older Joe hunts down, as he tries to find the source of the man who will destroy his world in the future and kill it before it has a chance to grow up.
The scene which divides the two halves of the film is dynamite, and possibly the strongest: when the two Joes meet face to face for the first time in a 'civilised' environment at a diner, and whilst older Joe explains his motivations - the love of his wife and their peaceful idyllic life in China, and how this is shattered by a shadowy mastermind called The Rainmaker - younger Joe is adamant that he still must close his loop and kill his man who is in all senses himself, 30 years on. This is the aspect I struggled with the most: when looking at Joseph Gordon Levitt (and I have to say, I didn't even notice the make up, so kudos to the department on this film) and Bruce Willis, to me they represented completely different entities and it was hard for my brain to merge these two together to be the same man. I just didn't buy that at all - it works better when it's the same actor and you can experience them living all these different/same realities, ala Melissa George in Triangle who is completely and utterly Jess. But despite this character flaw, both actors are excellent in this diner scene and trade insults and quips at one another in such enjoyable fashion - I particularly loved "your face looks backwards" and "I don't want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws." Props to Johnson for being a witty, clever screenwriter too.
After they part, this is when we descend into Children of the Corn/The Omen territory, as older Joe hunts down the three younger Rainmaker possibilities, but younger Joe comes upon him first as he encounters Sara and Cid in the farmhouse, and gains their trust as he waits for the older version of himself to arrive. The film really slows down at this point much to my pleasure, and we really get to savour the suspense and tip-toeing around the evil child with Emily Blunt's mother, and Johnson should really do a horror movie at some point down the line as I think he has a real knack for this. The scene where Sara and Cid are playing a game which falls into an argument which then leads into an outburst by Cid on such a terrifying, chilling level comes out of nowhere, and when the characters are unsettled by a certain presence then we as an audience are too. There's something superhuman about Cid and the way Gagnon plays him (remember, he's FIVE years old) - even before his outburst and later on when his advanced TK powers are revealed, he has already proved he is highly intelligent by inventing an alarm system for young Joe and his mother to use to communicate danger on the farm (and ends up becoming a 'sex frog' in this year's best bootie call), and just by his eloquent and astute conversations with adults. It's just unnerving for a ten year old to behave like that! The mystery around how Sara's sister died is also well drawn out.
The ending was satisfying, and felt right in the moment, but in retrospective it brings me to the biggest problem I have with the film. The cycle of a younger Joe killing an older Joe so he can live his life and become the older Joe only to be sent back and killed by the younger Joe has no beginning to it, a basic causality problem. There will never be a first Joe, as he will always have to kill a future version of himself, and that I guess is the paradox of the time loop. But what about films which do this well? Triangle is extraordinary in that it shows how the loop began - that itself is a version of Jess which exists - but also does the full 360 so you can live and experience every version of Jess there is, as several different ones can exist simultaneously, all with differing degrees of insight into the loop they are acting out over and over again. I didn't get a sense of that in Looper - though the never ending cycle becomes obvious, it feels like too much like this is all happening for the first time, which for young Joe it is, and for older Joe this is the second time around. There doesn't seem to be the range there which gives the characters an angst, a weary feeling of utter frustration and hopelessness, as Evan (Ashton Kutcher) feels in The Butterfly Effect or Phil (Bill Murray) in Groundhog Day. Here as well, the reason for the loop is a physical act of human invention and science and is clear from the off, it lacks the mystery of those other films where we only discover the reason for the loop at the very end, and as well as being remarkable, are all the more affecting because of it. There's something so very richly satisfying and moving about a desperate character suddenly having that breakthrough which allows them to escape (or not) their hellish predicament. There is a breakthrough in Looper for Gordon Levitt's younger Joe, but it feels achingly too simple. There is no emotional resonance here: "and then at that moment I realised this and this and this, and then what's when I realised I had to kill myself."
Older Joe's motivations seemed a little lacklustre too. Of course you can't doubt the power of love, but we don't get very many scenes with his wife (Qing Xu) so it's hard to root for him (I did love how when younger Joe meets Sara it begins to distort with older Joe's memories of his 'true love' though - very clever.) The little nuances of time travel and parallel worlds are well done, but I felt overall the complexity and fatigue of the characters was missing to allow this film to rise above that of just an entertaining and thrilling sci-fi horror film. But what a great one it is, and Looper certainly deserves your time and effort as it's bloody good fun - an intelligent visual spectacle which gives the likes of Inception a run for its money and is so promising for cinema.
Now, my biggest gripe came from the fact that no one in this god damn film eats their eggs. In the diner scene both Joes order steak, chips and eggs only to ignore them when they come out (!), talk over them as if they're not there (!!) and then as things gets heated throw them off the table as they fight (!!!). If that wasn't bad enough, later Emily Blunt's character is making some scrambled eggs for her son when she is distracted by something out the window, and then just ABANDONS them in the frying pan. She doesn't even turn the heat off! So to stop all this nonsense Looper is getting rated out of eggs today, rather than cheeses. And on a side note, no eggs and cheese definitely do NOT go together.