April 22, 2014

“Looper” blends film noir with twisty sci-fi; Our review: TORONTO ’12


By Sean O’Connell
Hollywoodnews.com: It’s an age-old question: If you could travel through time and murder Adolph Hitler – possibly preventing the dictator’s atrocities – would you have the nerve to complete the deed?

That moral dilemma is but one of the many, many open-ended questions noodled over by writer-director Rian Johnson in the fuzzy (to borrow one of its own terms) time-travel thriller “Looper.” The movie opens this year’s Toronto International Film Festival by reuniting Johnson with his “Brick” lead Joseph Gordon-Levitt. And while the collaborators maintain the shadowy, malicious air of the crime noir genre – which they perfected back in 2005 – they shift gears and embrace a whole new field: Futuristic science-fiction.

The year, to be exact, is 2044. Time travel exists, but it’s highly illegal and only available to underground criminal syndicates of the 2070s. In the future, we’re told, it’s impossible for mobsters to properly dispose of a murdered victim. So instead of offing a rival in 2074, the forward-thinking criminals transport their targets back in time, where Loopers like Joe (Gordon-Levitt) pull the trigger.

Before you have too much time to process the moral complications of men who earn dangerous livings murdering mysterious individuals as a career, one of Joe’s colleagues, Seth (a nervous Paul Dano), comes knocking on his door late at night. It appears Seth’s latest target was the future version of himself, and instead of offing his victim (or “closing your loop”), Seth let him escape (of “let his loop run”).

Bad news for Seth. And some disturbing foreshadowing for Joe.

As you likely already know if you’d paid any attention to “Looper,” Gordon-Levitt will have to contend with the future version of his own character, played by Bruce Willis. And it needs to be said that JGL does a fantastic Willis impersonation. He gets the seasoned actors shruggish mannerisms, his lackadaisical whisper of dialogue delivery, and his devil-may-care, don’t-give-a-shit weariness that Willis has brought to so many roles. Johnson gives his leading men a scene in a diner where they sit across from each other and try to hash out what they know. It’s an important, info-laden conversation that tries to explain the dense, convoluted science of “Looper,” and the men don’t forget to have some fun with the iconic moment.

It’s in this conversation, however, that Willis’ future-version of Joe tries to emphasize that the time-travel conundrums presented by Johnson’s scenario don’t matter, and that’s where “Looper” trips up. Because they do matter, and to stop and think about them for even a minute is to watch the film start to unravel long before it is supposed to. Willis, trying to explain how Gordon-Levitt’s present-day actions are instantly creating new memories for the future version of himself, dismisses the time-travel debate as “a precise description of a fuzzy mechanism.” Johnson doesn’t want us thinking too much about it. He has bigger fish to fry, including the story of a scrappy farmer (Emily Blunt) and her gifted child. He needs older Joe to confront Abe (Jeff Daniels), the mysterious figure sent back in time to initiate the Looper program. Endless discussions of the time-travel circuitry that makes “Looper” possible would stall “Looper” in its tracks, so stop thinking about it.

Except I just kept thinking about it. And I kept producing questions “Looper” didn’t want to answer.

Needless to say, to dissect said questions in a review would deflate the “Looper” experience for you, and that’s not my intent. I will say this: After a saggy middle-act that finds Gordon-Levitt waiting with Blunt for Willis to find them, Johnson sticks the landing with a solid ending. “Looper” successfully closes its loop. For some, that will be enough. But the screenplay takes a few shortcuts to reach its destination, hiding behind the truth that when the future is unpredictable, present day is allowed to be vague. Science-fiction yarns about subject matter as slippery as time travel, however, should not be.

Read more of our exclusive Awards interviews:
Producer Harvey Weinstein
“Lawless” director John Hillcoat
“Writers” director Josh Boone

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About Sean O'Connell

Sean O'Connell is a nationally recognized film critic. His reviews have been published in print ('The Washington Post,' 'USA Today') and online (AMC FilmCritic.com, MSN's Citysearch) since 1996. He's a weekly contributor to several national radio programs. He is a longstanding member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), and the Southeastern Film Critics View all articles by Sean O'Connell Association (SEFCA).

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