Just when I thought I was out…

Looper isn’t the time-traveling mob movie we expect, but it may just be the time-traveling mob movie we need.

Looper is consistently clever and surprising, and almost as consistently great. Yeah, I know: “The trailer didn’t look that interesting!” “Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s face looks weird and nothing like Bruce Willis!” “They give away the whole plot of the movie in the trailer!” Shut up and go see it.

I figured I knew what I was getting into. At best, it’d be the movie I’d wanted Primer to be: a lower-budget experiment inspired by thoughtful 70s sci-fi, with tons of variations on time travel and paradoxes and what happens when you encounter your past self. At worst, it’d be what the trailer implied — high-concept sci-fi that fails to deliver on the potential of its premise and just becomes another mediocre action movie, like last year’s In Time. (Or I guess even worse: it’d be like the actual Primer: so tedious that it managed to suck all the enjoyment out of time traveling).

In reality, though, Looper delivers on all of the expectations of the high-concept premise — in case you’re not aware, hit men are forced to kill mob victims sent back from the future, and one of the hit men is assigned to kill his future self — while simultaneously side-stepping everything that could make the high concept tedious.

It’s clever throughout and surprisingly funny — one of the advantages of having a great cast who are all used to doing comedy and know exactly how to under-play it. It presents a cerebral brain-twister that could form the entire set-up of a different sci-fi movie, then relegates it to the background. It goes from action to melodrama to humor to shocking bursts of violence. And even better, it understands how much more effective implied violence can be than any amount of gore.

For the first half, it felt like an engine that was ceaselessly churning out more high-concept ideas. In fact, during one of the most memorable scenes of implied violence, I was starting to worry that the movie was burning its fuel too early: “In this one sequence, you’re using up all the weird implications-of-time-travel material you’re supposed to be saving for the climax! What are you guys thinking? You’ve still got at least an hour of movie left!” But Looper made it clear that it was just getting started. “Please. You really think we haven’t all seen Timecop?

I’ve generally liked Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but more for his enthusiasm than anything else; he always seems to be completely committed, sometimes to the point of trying too hard. Here, the performance is almost entirely invisible, and the effect is uncanny. The make-up still doesn’t quite work, but his mannerisms are dead-on: if you see just a still frame, you’ll wonder what they could’ve been thinking; but when you see him and Willis together, it’s completely believable. Speaking of that, Bruce Willis gives a good, generally understated performance; and Jeff Daniels manages to be funny and intimidating at the same time.

Everybody in the cast is great, to the point of being eerily good. And like the movie itself, they all seem to start with the idea that we’ve all seen this stuff before, we know how it works, so there’s no point in acting like any of this is a major revolution. The story they want to tell just builds from there.

The only reason I’m not mentioning more of the cast is because going in, I had no idea who was in it other than Gordon-Levitt, Willis, and Daniels. And Looper definitely benefits from knowing as little as possible going in. So everything else goes after a major spoiler warning.

Neo Kansas City Is About To Explode

Of course I realize now that it’s not really a time-traveling mob movie, but I’m impressed by how well the reviews and hype kept the movie’s second half unspoiled. I was worried that they were using up all of their time-travel ideas in the first half, because I had no idea that the second half was going to turn into a live-action Akira.

Plenty of clues were there, in retrospect, but I’d thought the mention of telekinesis was going to be just another case of tossing out a sci-fi concept and then relegating it to set-dressing without belaboring it. Like the vagrant wars, or the narcotic eye drops, or the old beat-up cars all converted to solar power. A subtle reminder, like hover bikes and a crop-dusting robot, that we’re in the future, and a future that manages to still look like our present is somehow even more bleak and dystopian than anything Blade Runner could deliver.

Emily Blunt was pretty much perfect; her performance was so believable I almost wished I hadn’t recognized her, so I’d have been left in the dark as to whether she’d become a Significant Character. And the little kid was fantastic as well; he was eerily good at being eerie.

There’s a sense of effortlessness in the performances; even the melodrama feels natural and realistic. Combined with how casually the movie tosses out and mashes up science fiction concepts, it grounds the movie in a world where the fantastic is commonplace, so the emotion can come back to the surface. Hover bikes, time travel devices, and even telekinesis aren’t going to fundamentally change human beings any more than smart phones and flat-screen TVs did. People still feel lost.

Oedipus Editing

I’ve only got one problem with Looper, and it was almost significant enough to blow the entire movie for me. During the climax, as Sara gets shot, Joe starts a voice-over, describing how he suddenly realized it was “one big loop,” and he has a vision of the boy, now orphaned, boarding a train and riding by himself.

Wait, what?! I thought. Are they actually saying that the little boy grows up to be Joe? That doesn’t even make sense! The timeline doesn’t match up! The boy’s 10 years old; he’d remember his mother, and he’d remember meeting his adult self! And wait… that means Joe slept with his mom! While I was preoccupied trying to figure out the logistics of that whole scenario, I missed the weight of the climax.

Normally, I’d think that was just a case of me being dense, my own version of the “Oh, the apes had their own Statue of Liberty!” moment. But everywhere else in the movie, those brief cut-aways were used to indicate that Joe had a sudden memory of an altered timeline. It was never used to show Joe imagining a possible future. It still seems like a case of the movie breaking its own rules, and it’s unnecessarily confusing.

One of the movie’s strengths is that it doesn’t pander; it never acts as if it’s blowing the audience’s mind with a new idea, and it never expends too much effort making sure the audience is following along. When a movie doesn’t insult my intelligence, and then makes me feel dense, it’s frustrating.

8 thoughts on “Just when I thought I was out…”

  1. Really? Seemed pretty obvious to me that he was seeing the future that the actions of his future self would have created…

  2. I’m just curious if anyone else out there had the same misunderstanding, because that was the first time I’d heard that.

  3. wait… what?

    I’m probably about to sound really, really dumb. But I didn’t think that Cid grows up to be Joe. I thought the only real implication was that Cid grows up to be the Rainmaker, but that Joe can stop that by not letting himself kill Sarah.

    Did I miss something obvious/huge?

  4. Seppo: No, you didn’t miss something. I was just saying that Joe talks about “one big loop” when the movie cuts to a shot of Sid boarding a train by himself and looking angry. Everywhere else in the movie, those cut-aways were only used when the timeline had changed, to show that either young Joe or old Joe suddenly had a new memory because of something that had changed in his own timeline. I mistakenly thought the movie was throwing one more last-minute twist into the mix, suggesting that it was Joe’s on memory, Cid grew up to be Joe, and his mother getting shot was the incident that caused him to turn to a life of crime.

    Instead, the “one big loop” was simply that Old Joe’s shooting Sara was the incident that caused Cid to become the Rainmaker, which is what caused Old Joe to come back and shoot Sara in the first place. And the cut-away was Joe imagining Cid getting on the train, not remembering it.

    1. And I read a discussion about the movie that suggests there may have been one other time they cut away to something that wasn’t really a memory. When Old Joe murders the first kid, he has a flash of him and his wife in the future having a baby. I’d thought it was clearly him having a new memory now that the timeline had been changed.

      But somebody made the suggestion that because that kid wasn’t the Rainmaker, it couldn’t have done anything to change Joe’s timeline that significantly. (I’d been thinking that any change to the past could change the future, but really, getting into the butterfly effect would have made the movie unnecessarily complicated). So the cut-away was actually another case of Joe imagining what would happen. He was trying to convince himself that it was worth it because he was fixing everything, and he’d end up with a better future this time, and even that bringing a new child into the world would make up for the one he’d just killed.

  5. I was surprised by my not being more confused by the movie, because time travel stories do tend to fry my brain. But one thing I’m not sure I got was why there were two scenes of the Old Joe/Young Joe shooting, one where he gets away, Young Joe flees to his apartment, then falls off the fire escape. That then cuts to him in the field again, shooting Old Joe, and then flash forwarding to his future. What?

    See? my brain just fried.

  6. That confused me for several minutes, too. I was thankful for the “Year 1” titles and so on. It still wasn’t until around Year 20 or so that I’d fully caught on that they were looping back around to what we’d already seen, showing the future for the “first” Joe that ended up with him getting sent back in time without the hood on and saving himself from getting shot, in the present.

    Which is actually our future.

    Once I caught on, I was happy with the movie for trusting my intelligence enough to let me be confused for a minute. But then came the ending, where I was back to feeling like the people who complained about “aliens” at the end of A.I.

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