Looper (2012)

“Time travel has not yet been invented. But thirty years from now, it will have been. It will be instantly outlawed, used only in secret by only the largest criminal organisations. It’s nearly impossible to dispose of a body in the future […]. So when these criminal organisations in the future need someone gone, they use specialised assassins in our present called ‘loopers’. And so, my employers in the future nab the target, they zap him back to me, their looper. He appears, hands tied and head sacked, and I do the necessaries. Collect my silver.”

These first lines of Looper are a bit of inelegant, but effective voice-over exposition. With the exception of a bit of background detail that is introduced soon after (the emergence of low-grade telekinetic powers in parts of the populace), they quickly establish the premise of the film, which is mainly set in the year 2044 and focuses on one such Looper, Joe, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in occasionally distracting Bruce Willis make-up. Why the latex add-ons? Willis plays Joe’s older self from 2074, who returns to his past, manages to knock out his younger self before he can kill him(self), and sets off a chase that essentially lasts the rest of the movie.

Given who plays him, I expected Old Joe to be the hero of the film, or at least a wise mentor who tells Young Joe of a grave future that only he can stop. That is not really the case. Old Joe’s motives for staying in the past (to prevent a personal tragedy) aren’t ultimately less selfish than Young Joe’s motives for wanting him gone (to secure a nice, 30-year retirement). While both Joes become protagonists for the audience, the two never team up, but remain antagonists to each other. In fact, they both perpetrate both heroic and morally questionable (even despicable) acts, lending their characterisations unexpected shades of grey.

The time travel mechanics are a bit flimsy, something writer-director Rian Johnson is likely aware of since he has Old Joe shout out his unwillingness to explain exactly how they work. The whole scenario, really, is rather far-fetched (are there really no easier ways to disappear a person in the future, and no better ways to use a time machine?). That said, the time-travel plot holes can be chalked up to the genre, and I had no trouble doing so. Compared to the not particularly similar, but also time-travel themed Source Code, Looper is much less relentless, but the film still moves at a fairly rapid pace thanks to four narrative perspectives (Old Joe, Young Joe, the mafia and a specific mafia operative) that only converge towards the end. Even Young Joe’s plot, which sees him fairly quickly get stranded caring for a woman and her highly intelligent, but troubled child, doesn’t slow down a lot and contains a great deal of tension.

The film has pretty cinematography without feeling too slick, which is to be expected from the man who directed some of Breaking Bad‘s most celebrated episodes. The moral ambiguity surrounding its main character(s) also matches the gritty sorta-noir future setting and the motifs of addiction and the influence (both positive and negative) of parental figures. On the whole, it’s a good film, though not really as clever as I’d wager the filmmakers think it is.

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