Monday, October 01, 2012

Looper

I watched Looper two nights ago, and since coming out of the movie theater I've been trying to work out just why this film left me feeling so unimpressed.  It's not that there's anything wrong with Looper, which in fact wears the crown of intelligent, thought-provoking SF filmmaking better than almost any other claimant to that title in the last few years.  It's well-made, intelligent, and handles its time travel premise in brave and interesting ways.  But it's also an almost airless work, one whose pieces never managed to engage me enough to make me care about its whole.

A lot of this comes down to the kind of filmmaker Rian Johnson is.  Johnson's breakout film Brick was a pastiche that drew its power from a gimmick--that its high school age characters spoke like characters out of classic noir--but it elevated itself above a mere mash-up through its dedication to its style, and with the help of a magnetic, soulful central performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  In his follow-up to Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Johnson seemed to be struggling with the questions of artifice and gimmickry raised by his previous effort.  The heroes of that movie were con men whose method was to impose a narrative on their marks' lives.  They were men steeped in artifice but desperate for something real, and yet the events of the film were as artificial as anything they might have concocted.  Though a flawed film, The Brothers Bloom at least showed that Johnson was aware of the problems inherent to his storytelling approach and looking for a way to defuse them.  In that respect, Looper feels like a step backwards.  It lacks the raw emotional core of Brick, or the prevailing sense of self-awareness that permeated The Brothers Bloom, and yet it is as much a pastiche as either of these movies, this time of multiple genres.  The premise may be SFnal--in 2044, Joe (Gordon-Levitt again, this time buried under distracting facial prostheses) is a looper, an assassin who kills people transported from thirty years in the future--but the setting, with its seedy clubs, hopeless partying and drug use, and kind-hearted but defeated prostitutes, is pure noir, and when Joe's "loop," his older self (Bruce Willis, the reason for those distracting prostheses), shows up from the future and announces his intention to track down and kill the future crime boss known only as the Rainmaker, who will send all the loopers back in time to be killed and in the process kill old Joe's wife, young Joe--whose own survival depends on killing his future self--plants himself at a farm belonging to Sara (Emily Blunt), the mother of one of the possible Rainmakers, and the film becomes a Western.  There are even references to specific SF works--when Sara's young son Cid turns out to possess dangerous telekinetic powers that can erupt into murder when he's frightened or angry, the isolated farm with its seemingly endless surrounding fields of rustling cane recalls nothing so much as the classic Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life."

When Joe's boss Abe (Jeff Daniels), himself a traveler from the future, needles him for his old-fashioned (which is to say, contemporary to us) dress sense, he points out that Joe is merely mimicking movies that were, themselves, mimicking other movies, so it can't be said that Johnson isn't aware that he has, once again, created a work that is primarily occupied with referencing other works.  And yet that self-awareness doesn't run very deeply through Looper, which for the most part takes itself and its story quite seriously.  This is perhaps because Johnson has taken Abe's advice to Joe and tried to "do something original" with his SFnal premise, but unsurprisingly, this bit of invention is where Looper is weakest and least persuasive.  That the mechanics of time travel and its implications for the timeline don't hold together was perhaps to be expected--when do they ever?--and it might have been possible to handwave this, as well as the use of time travel as a means of assassination, which just barely hangs together if you don't think about it too much.  But Johnson tries to justify such an elaborate method of corpse disposal by having Joe tell us that in the future it's impossible to disappear a body, which hardly tracks with the lawless, poverty-stricken world of 2044, in which most of the non-criminals Joe encounters live on the streets or roam the countryside in vagrant gangs, and law and government appear to be nonexistent; perhaps we're meant to understand that there's going to be a movement towards law and order and greater government oversight in the next thirty years, but this clashes with the film's noir tone in a way that Johnson doesn't acknowledge, so that his attempt to create a coherent future world that includes time travel only calls attention to that world's thinness.

Even if you accept Looper's premise, however, Johnson's attempts to shade in this premise with invented SFnal idiom are awkward and unconvincing.  Terms like "gatmen" (the mob's enforcers, named after their gat guns), blunderbuss (the gun loopers use to kill their victims, which, even with an entire scene devoted to justifying the name, doesn't feel like the sort of thing that a 21st century person would call their gun, and is anyway an unattractive mouthful that makes the characters look ridiculous when they say it), and even looper itself are cumbersome.  When Joe's friend Seth (Paul Dano) loses his future self, Joe's ponderous voice-over tells us that "this is called 'letting your loop run'" as if this were a turn of phrase rather than a literal description of what has happened.  At no point does any of this language feel like an organic slang that might have emerged from this technology and the criminal lifestyle it had created (I actually found myself wishing for Andrew Niccol's relentless time-based puns from In Time, which were at least a little witty) and the fact that the characters use it dehumanizes them in a way that the noirish language in Brick didn't--it's not believable that people would talk this way, but it's also not artfully unbelievable either, just awkward and distracting.

All that said, once the scenario of an escaped future self roaming free in his past, and the challenges facing both him and his younger self, are established, Looper does some very interesting things with the concept of time travel and the questions it raises that, even if they don't quite elevate the film to a complete and satisfying work, certainly justify its existence and make it worth discussing.  There is, for example, a horrifying but extremely inventive scene in which old Seth is forced to report back to be executed by lopping off limbs and appendages from young Seth, keeping him alive to prevent a paradox even as old Seth's body parts disappear (that this represents as much of a paradox as killing young Seth would have--if his legs were chopped off, for example, how could old Seth have arrived in the past whole?--is yet another one of the points on which Looper's construction of time travel doesn't hold together).  More high-minded, and more interesting, is Looper's handing of predestination.  Time travel inevitably raises the question of free will vs. predestination--if the future is a place that exists and that we can travel to, doesn't that mean that our choices are set in stone in order to lead us to that future?  Hollywood filmmaking, with its emphasis on the individual as not just a hero but the prime mover and shaker of their story, can't quite accommodate this notion, so films dealing with time travel, like Back to the Future 3 or Terminator 2, will often plump for the crowdpleasing but intellectually bankrupt conclusion that yes, time travel exists, yes, we've seen the future, but no, our characters are not bound to that future for reasons that can't be articulated.

Looper rejects not only this simplistic take on time travel, but also the stark division between free will and having your entire life laid out for you.  The question, the film seems to be saying, isn't whether we have free choice or no choice at all, but how much free choice we have, how limited the options before us are, and how few of the choices available to us are good ones.  Joe, we learn, was abandoned by his drug-addicted mother and taken in by Abe as a child.  Technically, he has free will, but in reality, his becoming an assassin was inevitable, and the choice to get out of that life all but impossible--emotionally and practically--to make.  When they discover Cid's powers, both old Joe and young Joe insist that his becoming the Rainmaker is inevitable, but Sara believes that with her influence he can grow up a good person.  But as young Joe realizes (and mirroring Abe's description of looking at Joe as a child and seeing the path of criminality he was set on if he weren't saved--by which Abe means, turned into a looper), it's old Joe's murder of Sara that will set Cid on the path that makes him the Rainmaker.  So the inevitability of time travel is folded into the cycle of violence and of victims becoming victimizers, both a metaphor for it and a literal extension of it.

This is a very clever and original use of time travel, but it has darker implications that I'm not sure Johnson has fully appreciated.  By paralleling the limited options of people born into poverty and crime with the predestination implied by time travel, Looper essentially denies the very possibility that a person might choose to change their life.  Change, in this film, is only ever something that happens to us at someone else's instigation, and as a result of their choices.  Joe is who he is because of his mother's abandonment and because Abe took him in.  Old Joe changed because his wife, as he puts it, saved him.  Cid will either become a crime lord or a good person, depending on whether Sara is in his life.  People are changed, they do not change themselves--even old Joe, who insists that he is a more evolved person than his younger self, proves otherwise with his actions; though Joe tells him that the best way to save his wife is to give her up, he is so insistent that he can save her and still have her that he is willing to kill children who might become the Rainmaker, but who might also be completely innocent.  The only examples of adults choosing to change their lives take the form of self-abnegation--realizing that he can't stop old Joe from killing Sara, young Joe kills himself in order to cancel out his future self's existence, and former party girl Sara, who initially left Cid with her sister, has only managed to change her life by making it entirely about another person.  Looper depicts a world in which our path in life is determined by our parents or the people who act as our parents, and in which people are either children--and thus molded by the choices of their parents--or parents--and thus fully occupied by molding their children--but never individuals who might make their own choices and live to deal with the consequences.  Changing your own life and then living that change is hard and, for most of us, impossible, so I wouldn't have objected to this moral if Looper had chosen to face the bleakness of its conclusion head on.  But the film, preoccupied as it is with the neatness of Joe's having closed both his loop and Cid's (and with the Western style ending of Lonely Widow Sara riding off into the sunset with her son and Joe's ill-gotten fortune), doesn't entirely acknowledge its own implications, which is part of why, despite being impressed with Johnson's twist on the time travel premise, I found Looper underwhelming.

That a film that is all about limited choices feels, as I said in this review's opening sentences, airless is perhaps to be expected, but Looper's sense of inevitability is never as affecting or as tragic as it needs to be to turn that airlessness into claustrophobia.  A lot of this is down to the characters and the fact that they are, as I've said, either children or parents.  Young Joe is the former, and he spends large portions of the film in a fug of moral and emotional incomprehension.  But his transformation occurs along such familiar lines, straight out of the Western story about the anti-hero turned around by a tough widow and her cute young son, that not even an actor of Gordon-Levitt's caliber can bring it to life.  Sara, who actually becomes the film's central character in its second half, is the closest that Looper comes to a compelling, complicated figure, but she's hobbled by the fact of being a female character in a Rian Johnson film, and thus anchored to the axis between savior and seductress.  She never quite escapes being a mommy.  Old Joe should have been the film's saving grace, since he's the only character who complicates the divide between parents and children.  He thinks of himself as an adult, but his unwillingness to make the sacrifice that young Joe finally does at the end of the film belies that claim and shows him to be, fundamentally, as immature and self-absorbed as he accuses his younger self of being.  But apart from one scene in which the two Joes meet at a diner (one of the film's highlights) there is hardly any direct interaction between them, and old Joe is seen mostly at a distance.  He doesn't have a Sara or a Cid who can bring him out of his shell, so we don't get to know him as well as we do young Joe, and by the end of the film his role is more to move the plot--to kill Abe's goons, and draw closer to Sara's farm--than to shed more light on the questions at Looper's core.

"I remember it after it happens," old Joe tells young Joe, explaining how their shared memory works.  Before young Joe makes a choice, old Joe sees his options as if they were in flux, but after it's been made, old Joe sees it as inevitable.  That feels like a very accurate description of the experience of watching Looper.  It's not a predictable film--there are two many genres at play here, too many references to specific works, and even a twist or two--but once every step of the plot occurs, it feels inevitable and unsurprising.  The reference coalesces, our realization of the genre we're in at this moment crystallizes, and the film once again fails to emerge from these as its own entity.  While watching Looper, I found myself comparing it to Twelve Monkeys, another film that bravely owns up to the inevitability implied by time travel, but in a way that is even more hopeless--not only does free will not exist, but as a consequence of that, the human race is annihilated.  And yet Twelve Monkeys is more lively and more affecting than Looper, and not just because of its humor (a trait that the po-faced Looper lacks entirely--even the seemingly inescapable joke about young Joe realizing that he will one day go bald is absent).  Unlike Looper, Twelve Monkeys lets its characters breathe, lets them be people rather than delivery systems for its ideas about inevitability and the cycle of violence.  It's a film with a heart, albeit a bleakly cynical one.  Well made as it is, and for all its interesting ideas, Looper lacks that heart, which is why it never rises above its component pieces.

14 comments:

Jamie said...

Very interesting review, thank you for sharing it. I agree on much of it. I, too, have compared it unfavourably with Twelve Monkeys, but I think perhaps more because the way time travel is depicted in the latter is far more convincing to me - I feel predetermined loops make far more sense than the BTTF-style constant flux that is at play here. Interesting that, as you point out, the main thrust of the movie seems to be about the inability to escape one's fate despite the time travel mechanics that allow mutilation in the presence to alter someone's future appearance and memories; seems to be a slight thematic disconnect there, which perhaps would have worked better if the mechanics had been that of a closed loop in the style of Twelve Monkeys or, say, Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates.

I would disagree, however, about the suggestion that Looper lacks any humour whatsoever; I wouldn't say it was laugh per-minute, but I (and apparently many in the cinema with me) thought there were several very funny lines and moments, albeit mostly not of a particularly sophiscated kind.

ide-cyan said...

Looper to me stands in parallel to Midnight in Paris as a stylistic exercise to raise the consciousness of a hapless male protagonist toward a foregone conclusion. (...Nth attempt to post a variantion on this comment.)

ibmiller said...

I definitely agree that the problem with Looper is that there's not enough connection with the audience - I think Johnson was going for the same sense of desolation that he captured at the end of Brick, but without characters who are as desolated as the teens in that film, or the ability to connect to those characters, Looper feels to emotionally confused at the end to provoke such a pure reaction.

lavanyasix said...

I largely agree with your review, but I was wondering if you have any thoughts about the nature of the film's financing. Looper only got off the ground at all because of China's DMG Entertainment, and as part of that deal the future was rewritten (pardon the pun) so that Joe goes to China instead of France. I heard there was also some added dialogue made for the Chinese release of the film that states China is the world's only superpower, but I can't find a link to confirm that so I may just be misremembering some Sinophobic forum comment.

Iron Man 3 has a similar sort of co-financing deal with DMG, and given that franchise's high profile I expect there will be some grinding of teeth in the media about Chinese influence on the film, real or imagined.

jmu said...

A very good review on the philosophy provoked by the paradoxes made possible by time travel.

And, yes, I do have some questions about the concepts (why wasn't young Set just shot from the beginning? And if Joe shooting himself stops the loop, wouldn't that also change the future?) but my guess is that Johnson gives himself an out in the conversation between the old and the young Joes about them being from alternate paths since, let's remember, young Joe did shoot his old self once so how could he be sitting there in the dinner?

My major question is: where did the birth information about the Rainmaker come from? If it was written on the palm of old Joe's hand by his wife, where did she get it? If China is the only superpower left with a semblance of law and order, why are gat-men, who dress almost like Hassidic Jews, operating in China where a presumably unique time machine is operating?

I know, it is just a movie. But resolving these questions would give us a better understanding of the world Johnson has created.

Dan O. said...

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 Abigail.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Jamie:

the main thrust of the movie seems to be about the inability to escape one's fate despite the time travel mechanics that allow mutilation in the presence to alter someone's future appearance and memories; seems to be a slight thematic disconnect there

I don't know, to me that just makes the film's message more powerful - that time travel doesn't imply predestination and yet our lives are still determined by our childhood and the choices our parents made.

In general I'm not that fussed by the fact that the film's concept of time travel doesn't hang together - as I said, it rarely ever does. My problem is with the fact that Johnson keeps trying to explain it as if by doing so he will eventually reach a version that makes sense - when what he's really doing is making his world seem increasingly cumbersome and unbelievable.

ide-cyan:

Yes, though in a strangely half-hearted way. As I said, in the second half of the film, it feels as if Sara is very close to being its true protagonist, and that if it weren't for Johnson's problems writing women she would be.

lavanyasix:

I'd read about this (and apparently the gamble paid off - Looper did very well in China this weekend). In terms of the script, I don't see significant changes. Joe does go to China instead of France (and there is a brief reference to this switch in the film - Joe tells Abe that he wants to go to France and Abe says "I'm from the future, go to China," but not to the point of actually saying that China is a superpower) and the actress who plays his wife is Chinese, but neither of these points affect the thrust of the story. So going by the example of Looper I don't think these sorts of deals are a bad thing - for one thing, they give Chinese actors the chance to play non-stereotypical roles (not that Joe's wife is an entirely non-stereotypical role - she has no lines and her only function is to be saintly and, for reasons we never discover, dedicate her life to nursing a murderous junkie - but the problem here is her gender, not her race).

jmu:

We see Joe receive the information about the Rainmaker shortly before the goons nab him, from one of his former associates, not his wife - though I agree that the way that scene is shot strongly implies that she's the one who writes the information on his hand.

Alison said...

Smashing analysis, I have linked to it from my blog. I am interested in the very strong allusion to Breaking Bad in the diner scene.

'Aging dangerous (bald) man browbeats and ridicules younger man in a diner, calls him a child, and they end up hurting each other. That's like in every episode of Breaking Bad, and it never gets old.

'Bruce Willis is a more straightforward kind of guy than Bryan Cranston, less in touch with the problematic things inside one's heart. His delivery of the same lines is less complicit and disturbing, but nevertheless it is fascinating to see a different favourite actor approach the same material.'

It is noticeable how diffused the emotion was, outside of this two-handed work between the leads. To be fair I felt the violence, the physical harm, quite intensely. I was disappointed by how the main characters were oblivious to the unfortunate. What about the disabled guy who had nothing to eat? How about using that silver to establish an orphanage or something. I think if there had been some sense of that continuity with the community it might have been more emotionally compelling.

Narmitaj said...

I think Twelve Monkeys works better on several grounds - more off-the-wall (more Gilliamesque). Its time travel is messy and inaccurate, leading to target errors (WWI, 6 years ago, "now") and hardly any present-day people are even aware of it. Looper's visuals aren't so interesting, and time travel seems to be much more widely known about (Emily Blunt is unsurprised about it). It's also more precise: accurate to the second so the killers know when to shoot their hooded victims (and on a 30-year loop - otherwise, the future would send victims to the same location, to kill lots at one time).

Mainly, I think, 12 Monkeys works better because of the POV. In 12 Monkeys we're following the POV of a man from a specific time who is trying to affect his past; the baseline time is where old Willis comes from. His actions in the past turn out to create some of the features his associates in his present/our future have heard about. But that future world is post-apocalyptic, their info sketchy, and the army of the 12 monkeys was both caused by Willis and is a red herring, not the source of the plague Willis was sent to prevent. The past history of Willis's world is fixed.

In Looper, we're following the POV of a character "now" (ie Joe in 2044), and his decisions can still affect the future. At first I thought that the future was fixed - seeing your future self meant you knew that you had 30 years' more life. But it turns out you get killed even if you have already seen your future self. That's fine as a moral - we can change our futures - and as a metaphor - we can imagine where we see ourselves in 10 years. But you get into splitting parallel timelines and all things are possible. Or are they, cos young Joe doing stuff creates new memories in old Joe's head, which implies they're on the same timeline. But they can't be, as The Rainmaker appears in old Joe's world even though in that timeline old Joe never, while young, met Emily Blunt and the kid and never met old Joe except to execute him.

12 Monkeys may be more depressing - you can't change the past, there is only one timeline and people who go back in time manage to do what has actually already been done, even if you didn't know what that was (it works in the film because of the paucity of the information), but feels more plausible.

Looper's is more hopeful, because of its POV - you can change the future. It is more metaphorical - you do stuff now that may kill you in 30 years, you can take different actions that will affect other people's futures. It plays havoc with the actual technicalities of time travel, though - the timey-wimeyness doesn't seem to fit with the super-accurate scheduling of the hooded killings. In principle the film is telling us the course of time between 2044 and 2074 could change enough (nuclear war, for instance) that the whole future mob and its time machine would no longer exist, but in that case where did the past string of victims from the future, and Abe, come from? Even in our iteration of the film, where did old Joe come from?

There's lots of other smaller things it is fun to think of. If Emily Blunt is au fait with time travel even in 2044, how come the all-seeing authorities of 2074 have forgotten all about it? There are loads of retired Loopers living to 2074 - do none of them hide, seek protection from the government, tell their wives, kids, friends?

If body-disposal is so impossible in 2074, why do the mobmen go to pick up Joe with fatal weapons instead of Tasers? If they can fake his wife's death as an accident, how come that isn't easier for all other mob killings? Don't the authorities notice people's tracking tags simply disappearing, all in Shanghai in one factory?

The loopers all seem pretty unreliable, drugged up wackheads. Given that they are, how come they are trusted to go to their assigned killings on time? They might oversleep, or get a flat tire.

Narmitaj said...

Seth's mutilation... at first I thought this was a problem, as then Seth would be kept alive 30 years in an amputated, tortured state and sent back unable to run. But then I figured that, with a lot of mob-funded expensive work, the medicine of the 2060s could have restored his nose and extremities so he would try again.

The blunderbuss is an issue... the loopers have them apparently to ensure close-range killing, but really they are there for the convenience of the writer, so young Joe can't simply shoot old Joe at a distance in the field. You'd think loopers such as Joe or Seth would have a backup gat of their own to use if their victim does manage to get away.

A final issue I saw someone else raise - how does Joe do the voice-over explaining that he has killed himself? Sure, you get dead people doing VOs in Sunset Boulevard and The Lovely Bones, but you know from the start that the main character winds up dead even if, as in Sunset B, you don't know immediately that it is the dead person narrating. Having a character live almost to the end of the film and narrate on though his own death seems a bit feeble.

mani said...

Ha! I'm sure the rest of your review is excellent, but before I get to that -
I got here while googling for the exact term "looper inescapable bald joke". I was pretty sure that's why that they'd even cast Willis.
Nice to know someone else thought of this too!

ScottM said...

I agree with much of your review, though I am more forgiving. I do have to disagree with your assessment of Twelve Monkeys, though. As a philosophical exploration, I agree. But as a work of entertainment I found it tedious and ultimately boring, as we knew from the beginning exactly how the movie would end. It was weird, but entirely unsuspenseful. Looper had me going all the way through. Surprises? Maybe not, but it was an entertaining ride.

My biggest question is why the loops had to be closed. The hand-waving "loose ends" explanation is wholly unsatisfactory. But ultimately it doesn't matter so much: the Rainmakers rampage seems more personal than business.

Anyway, nice post.

almostnever said...

Really puzzled by your assertion that the characters don't change in Looper, but only are changed by others.

The entire point of the film is that the events of the story change young!Joe so that he becomes the kind of person who is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of others.

We know from his Bruce Willis future that Joe has the potential to become so monstrously selfish that he will murder children rather than give up his wife to save her life. But Joe changes... his guilt and regret over Seth, meeting his future self and realizing where he's heading, and probably most of all, meeting Sara and Cid and seeing a real family bond. At the farm, Joe finally has time outside his locked-in existence to reflect on his life. All this allows Joe to change himself into someone who can act selflessly. The gimcrackery of the plot is aimed to set up and frame that change.

The only problem I had with Looper was the prosthetics on Gordon-Levitt, which obscured some of his acting and probably made Joe's character growth less obvious than it should have been, if the actor had been allowed to give an unimpeded performance.

baeraad said...

Watched this because of this review. Ended up with more or less the same opinion expressed in it, too, to the point where I have very little to add. (but I sometimes feel the need to explicitly tell you that I agree, since I spend so much time here bitching and arguing :P )

Mainly, I feel something that you touched upon several times - the movie isn't crazy enough. The worldbuilding is questionable, the characters are shallow, there is a mishmash of different genres that seem to be there to say "hey, I'm a different genre!" instead of fitting in organically, and of course the whole time travel thing is as iffy as you quite rightly point out that time travel things always are. But all of this would be fine - in fact, would be exactly the way it should be - if the movie could just keep up the pressure-cooker of weirdness and keep bombarding the viewer with bizarre-yet-making-sense-in-hindsight impressions. But it doesn't do that. It has far too many quiet moments that lets you sit back, relax, and go, "hey... that part was kind of stupid."

What it mostly reminds me of is Being John Malkovitch. I'm not sure if I can put into words exactly why, only that movie made me uncomfortable in the way that I feel like Looper tries and fails to make me uncomfortable.

Still, all's said and done, it was okay. Had some interesting ideas. Had some cool scenes and good performances. It just feels like it should have been more intense.

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