© 2011, Looper, LLC

Emily Blunt as “Sara” and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as “Joe” in TriStar Pictures, Film District, and End Game Entertainment’s action thriller LOOPER. Photo: Alan Markfield.

I suppose I hadn’t given it much thought then, nearly dismissing Brick in my 2006 review as a “flagrantly self-affected and at times dementedly jocular piece of art-house trash,” before immediately reversing course and finding something deeper in it. Utilizing anachronistic gumshoe dialogue in the style of Dashiell Hammett, director Rian Johnson assembled a seemingly clever detective story that uses a “brick” of heroin as the MacGuffin, and a dead girl as a plot device. It took me until now to realize that all women are plot devices in Rian Johnson’s universe.

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a Looper, is paid handsome sums of money to eliminate targets of crime syndicates thirty years into his future. Having become possible yet highly illegal, time travel is used to eliminate enemies by sending them into the past to be killed by a Looper waiting for them in the right place and time.

While loopers carry blunderbuss rifles, ideal for short-range elimination of their targets, a sinister villain known as the Rainmaker has employed Gat Men (so named for their pistols) to hunt down every Looper for reasons yet to be discovered. The twist is given early in the film when the future Joe (Bruce Willis) is sent back into young Joe’s hands. This is called “closing the loop,” for which Loopers are paid in gold ingots rather than silver. No thought is given to the effects of inflation, but the difference in color at the very least lets the Looper know he’s just killed himself. While a death sentence, most Loopers use the foreknowledge and vast sums of money to party like it’s 2039 for the remaining 30 years of their life.

But just as this set introduces us to what could be a riveting story, even the film’s seemingly mundane details that might have given character and depth, such as Joe’s quip about so-called T.K.’s (telekinetics) being “assholes who think they’re blowin’ your mind floating quarters,” are really only expository moments designed to move the plot forward.

Seth (Paul Dano) is the first looper who gets wise to the future, then releases his future self in a panic. It’s intriguing to see a future self put together what to do next as his body scars and memories change based on the guiding actions of his past self in the same present. However, if as a storyteller you’re going to think that far to impress us then wouldn’t it be sensible to stop somewhere in the writing process and ask yourself, “What’s a noseless, legless, tongueless guy going to do for the next thirty years?”

It’s claimed that Abe (Jeff Daniels) is a dangerous gangster from the future sent to the present to control the loopers but this is a bit superfluous since the very method used to send payment back in time is the same method used to close the loop. The Milgram Experiment is proof enough that the more distance you keep between the subject and the experimenter the better. In reality, Abe only helps instigate ultimately meaningless action sequences. One such sequence demonstrates the paradox that would occur were Joe to die. Not only is it blindingly obvious that this paradox was shown to you, the viewer, to foreshadow the denouement, but the director later completely ignores the story’s own internal logic all for the convenience of an ending that probably tested better with audiences.

The other, and more troubling aspect to the film is Mr. Johnson’s use of women as plot devices or Male Support Systems. Every female character, beginning with Suzie (Piper Perabo) the stripper, either caters to a male’s sexual desires, assuages a man’s wounds, or mothers him. Not one of the female characters in the movie exists as a personality of depth with her own motivations. Why does Joe’s future wife (Qing Xu), so central to the entire story, lack even so much as a single line of dialogue to give insight as to why she fell in love with him? She’s an object that moves the plot forward. Emily Blunt’s Sara comes to trust young Joe not on her terms so much as because he protected her from another (perceived) male threat who turns out to be harmless! Was it too much for Rian Johnson’s imagination to come up with a cleverer way for them to cross paths than to undermine his own self-sufficient, rifle-slinging single mom with a classical damsel Meet Cute? There’s a recurring theme of Sara hacking away at a tree stump with an axe, perhaps to symbolize her frustration at being a purposeless object by taking it out on another purposeless object.

Comparisons will be made to Chris Marker’s La Jetée and Terry Gilliam’s inspired derivative, 12 Monkeys, in which Bruce Willis also starred. But Mr. Marker was smart enough to keep his story very simple, observing something more profound about the human condition in 26 minutes of still photographs than all 118 minutes of this movie in which the second act is too long and the third obliterates the more interesting possibilities set up in the first.

While some films which play fast and loose with details can get away with it, we can’t ignore the inconsistencies and omissions here because the director has created a film that at least sets an expectation of story consistency and depth, and then fails to deliver it. I wouldn’t give any grief to, say, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But because the deus ex machina here is not only evident from the start, and because the identity of the Rainmaker is glaringly obvious, then the conclusion to the film betrays everyone in the audience by only partially observing the rules of time travel set up in earlier scenes. The transgression of internal logic suspends a faithfully observant viewer’s disbelief more than Mr. Gordon-Levitt’s glued on eyebrows.

Looper • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 • Running Time: 100 minutes • MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug content. • Distributed by TriStar Pictures

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  • Conotocarius Jones

    An interesting take on the film. I had not considered the one dimensionality of the female characters. I will have to go rewatch and see if that changes my perception of it a second time around. But, I think perhaps you’ve set yourself up for disappointment looking for internal consistency in a time travel film. As we all know, time travel is absolutely impossible (time is not a line) and you don’t really have to move very far at all once you’ve established a time travel premise to reach a paradox. I thought that the diner scene made an appropriate apology for the inevitable break in the logic. I preferred to think of the time travel aspect of the film like a broken, unstable process (probably the reason it’s banned) which can result in wildly paradoxical events that tend to try to fix themselves in the present reference only. Bruce Willis could not have known or remembered to meet himself in the diner until he had already traveled back. After I accepted that a future self once having traveled back has rather limited connections to the past, the film felt much smoother and my cognitive dissonance subsided somewhat. Had I tried to watch the movie with the same expectations of time travel I had built while watching, for example, Los Cronos Criminales (fantastic film, but a bit sparse for some), I think I would have not enjoyed it nearly as much as I did. A movie like Los Cronos Criminales, or to some extent 12 Monkeys, takes the idea of time travel and pushes away the idea of self determination in favor of a more static view. The idea of the past as already set in stone, and time travel can only send you back to what was possible, but not necessarily events that would make logical sense to actors involved. For a thought experiment consider this: A man builds a time portal with an entrance and an exit. He also builds a contraption which will fling a billiard ball into the time portal at such an angle that it will exit the portal with exactly the time and angle necessary to collide with its earlier self in such a way as to knock it away from the portal and prevent it from entering in the first place, creating a paradox. As the man is setting up his contraption the future ball flies out of the portal at an unexpected time with a different angle than expected and collides with contraption in such a way as to cause the younger ball to fire with the necessary angle and time to complete the loop and avoid the paradox. This scenario is more like the movies mentioned above, while in Looper the billiard ball would indeed travel as intended, the older ball prevents the younger one from entering the portal, and then disappears.

    • Thanks for the well thought-out comment! Here’s a little bit more detail on what I was thinking:

      Any film, even a time travel film, has to at least obey the internal logic (or internal disarray) that it sets up as its own rules. It doesn’t have to agree with the laws of physics, but it has to agree with whatever world the writer establishes. If Superman can speed up and slow down without a propulsion system, rather than behaving as a flying projectile (as normal physics would dictate), then he shouldn’t behave as an uncontrollable projectile at any other time unless something else (kryptonite) causes him to be. But in the case of Looper, there’s no kryptonite. At no time does the writer introduce us to anything that explains the inconsistency in logic from one paradox to the next.

      As I’ve stated in my review, I can ignore those inconsistencies in certain films that don’t establish dramatic portents. However, Looper is by all appearances a drama that the filmmakers want you to take seriously. When Joe shoots his older self, the entire paradox should cancel itself out in the same way that Joe falling off the ladder the first time resets everything from the moment that old Joe appears. Instead, Cid retains scars, the field is still full of debris from his telekinetic tantrum, and Sara seems to have retained knowledge of all the events that should not have partially transpired. We can’t have it both ways.

      Maybe the writer/director didn’t want the film to end with the “It Was All A Dream” trope. But equally bad is that he couldn’t think of a unique resolution we hadn’t seen before. Instead, the location and the characters retain physical and psychological evidence of an event that should either have completely taken place or not at all… depending on which version of movie time travel logic they settled on. But the film chose its world’s logic in the earlier scene, and then abandoned it.

      I accepted the forearm scrawling’s slow, rather than instantaneous, appearance as both a decision for dramatic benefit as well as an illustration that instantaneous changes manifest parallel to the duration over which they occur… i.e. if it takes fifty seconds to write something on Joe’s arm in the present, future Joe will see it over fifty seconds. But even if we give it that treatment, the forearm scribbling a) has the initial effect of only deciding the diner meeting which may change other events in the past as we watch them unfold (because both subjects are in the same time period as we are observing events take place) and b) doesn’t change the expectation that Joe’s demise should instantaneously change everything that just took place because he’s not just inflicting a wound but erasing himself from existence and thereby removing himself completely from all the events that led him to Sara.

      Imagine the visceral impact of that scene instead cutting instantly to her sitting on that porch, smoking her imaginary cigarette. Cut to black. Roll credits. I wouldn’t say that this is an empty close because so much more could have been done up to that point to play with the notion of love and falling in love. The marriage to this woman in the future who is little more than a salve for Bruce Willis’ wounds is rather weak, and it could have been recovered by his younger self’s realization that Sara is not only the woman he should have actually been with, but also the very solution to both problems: Give Cid a path down which he never becomes the Rainmaker, and save the Asian woman’s entire future. Rian Johnson could have skipped my idea of the unrequited love ending and gone down this path. He didn’t even have to show us scenes of what Cid could have grown up to be to flesh it out. We only need be entertained by that notion that’s barely dangling on the end of Mr. Johnson’s mind, though he sadly never realizes what a mindbending conclusion he let slip through his fingers… or Joe’s.

  • I thought this movie was decent overall, but the flaws in it did get to me as well. In my opinion, a person who writes and directs his own movie should have done a better job of making sense of such things and eliminating them when possible.

  • totallymeat

    ***SPOILER ALERT*** Even if you suspend disbelief on all of the time travel dynamics, the entire premise of the movie unravels when we witness Bruce Willis being abducted in the future. What happens to his wife during this encounter? She is shot in the stomach, presumably fatally. We then witness their house set ablaze, and although it is not explicitly depicted in the film, the implication is that her body is burned along with it.

    For those of you paying attention, the whole reason for sending targets back in time to be executed is because there is some unarticulated problem with disposing of murdered bodies in the future. If that’s the case, why isn’t anyone concerned that Bruce’s wife has been shot down in cold blood? If her murder isn’t a problem, why didn’t the Gat Men simply shoot the two of them, disposing of both of their bodies in the fire? Wouldn’t that have been easier than sending him back in time? All they would have had to do was change this scene to not involve his wife at all and thereby keep true to the theme of loopers being “disappeared”. Instead, they went for dramatic effect and ruined the whole pretense of the looper process.

  • Austin Long

    I thought it would have made more sense if young Joe was the one that killed Sara, and old Joe came back to stop his younger self from doing so. Obviously that would require some other plot points to be changed, but if old Joe caused Cid to become the Rainmaker by killing his mother, there would be no point in him returning to stop Cid, because Cid would have never become the Rainmaker in the first place. Maybe it was not meant to be a guarantee that Cid would become evil ONLY if his mother died, but it sure was inferred.

    Also, it was noted in the film that bodies are hard to get rid of in the future and that’s why they send them back in time to be killed, yet they kill the Asian wife with no issue.

  • Ringo

    This review perfectly captures my problems with the movie. I really quite enjoyed it on a scifi action level but the ending so completely betrayed the setup that I felt that the writer cheated me as a viewer, and did so KNOWINGLY. I also agree that the ending probably tested better hence the inconsistency. I hope that in some other future there is an alternate ending that was more considerate of the viewer’s investment in the films premises. Excellent review.