Every once in a while a movie comes around that doesn’t just warrant a closer inspection but demands one. When you have films like Mulholland Dr., Inception, and even The Master, a conventional review can never dig deep enough into the film’s story and filmmaking process; when it comes to films as complex and mind-boggling as these, a closer look is as vital as it is needed. This weekend, Rian Johnson’s sci-fi thriller Looper easily joined the pantheon of movies that demand in depth discussions. After debuting with a solid $20 million opening weekend haul, we imagine many of your heads are probably spinning like ours are, so why not take a closer look at this time traveling/psychological thriller hybrid of a movie? With that said, you have been warned: THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD!! Turn away now if you have yet to see Looper!
1) The Characterization of Young Joe:
In order to have a great movie you need great characters, and Looper has that in spades since almost everyone you meet is memorable and extremely well written, be it Jeff Daniel’s intimidating yet endearing mob boss, Abe, or Paul Dano’s frightened and nervous “looper”, Seth. However, the standout is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Young Joe (Surprised? Probably not); while JGL plays him to perfection, easily transforming into a young Bruce Willis in a way that’s haunting, the real strength of the character comes from Rian Johnson’s incredible characterization.
When we first meet Joe he is drifting through his days; he’s an empty, hallow, and lonely man whose life revolves around murder and addiction. Somewhat tragically, he’s also living on a false hope that one day he can escape his life and move to France where all of his problems will disappear. Under this layer of selfishness and hostility, however, you can see there is a real human being, one that’s craving human connection so bad that he’s willing to give all of his silver to a prostitute in order to feel needed and wanted. Though in one instance Joe puts money over friendship, selling out his best friend Seth to the mob so that he can keep his silver, the deep remorse he feels over the decision doesn’t go without notice. Joe may be self-absorbed but he’s not without relatable guilt.
These characterizations continue to ring true as we meet Old Joe, played by Bruce Willis, for once this future version of Joe enters the picture you get an even better portrait of Young Joe’s selfishness. In the pivotal diner scene, we see that Young Joe doesn’t care why Old Joe is back in the slightest; all Young Joe does care about is killing his older self so that he can go on living his life. Young Joe explains that he has earned his life and that Old Joe is a roadblock in the way, a man who already had his turn to live and who now must die.
Nevertheless, this all begins to change once Sara and Cid enter the picture in the film’s second half. When Young Joe first arrives at the farm he is still self-obsessed, more than willing to burn down Sara’s crops in order to flush out Old Joe even though that’s Sara and Cid’s means of income. To put it simply, he just doesn’t care how his actions affect others. As he starts to slowly interact with Sara and Cid, however, you begin to see him form real human connections, and, as a result, he slowly starts thinking about them and their safety rather than his own personal goals. It’s ultimately through these connections, and by default through obtaining the thing he most desires (human connection), that Young Joe is given a real purpose – to stop his older self and protect, at this moment in time, an innocent family, and the fact that he’s willing to die to carry out this purpose only humanizes him more. Over the course of the film, Young Joe does a complete 180 in terms of character, an arc that gives Looper its engaging core; despite futuristic settings and all the talk about time travel, Looper is a deeply emotional and personal film and the characterization of Young Joe is the reason why.
2) The Setting:
For a movie that is set in the future and deals with time travel, Looper is surprisingly believable in its depiction of a possible dystopian future. In Johnson’s 2044, nothing is outlandish; there’s no jetpacks, no teleportation, no super intelligent robotic life, and so on. Instead, the world truly feels like an extension of ours, only if everything went to shit; the cars, for instance, are simply modified and updated versions of normal looking sedans, while the guns also seem like amplified versions of the revolvers and shotguns that we have now.
One of the biggest strengths of the setting is the way in which the world operates similar to today’s society. In many science-fiction movies the future can seem jarring since it changes the way in which humans operate and interact with one another. The future of Looper, however, seems naturally like our world thirty years from now. People are still stuck in poverty and have to work dead end jobs. People still search for ways to beat the system and take advantage of others. Too many movies set in the future tend to focus heavily on the “cool” aspects of the time period and force feed us those extraneous scenes of futuristic clubs, or sports, or weapons that serve as a distraction from the plot and characters. However, Looper manages to avoid this common pitfall and, instead, forms a truly believable world that immediately grabs our attention. Instead of viewing the world of Looper from the outside, the raw realism Johnson creates pulls us into the world and into the dead heat of the tension.
3) The Philosophical Questions:
In the age of sequels, adaptations, and reboots that merely serve to entertain, it’s rare to go to the theatre and watch a movie that truly makes you think. Looper is one of those movies and is all the more thrilling because of it. While on the surface Looper can be seen as an entertaining and intelligent science-fiction actioner, it has a lot of depth and brings up a few really interesting philosophical quandaries about nature vs. nurture and ends justifying the means.
One of the biggest philosophical debates of the film is whether or not someone is born evil/good or whether he/she is shaped by his/her surroundings. Young Joe represents the idea that with the right upbringing and family anyone can be good, seen in his belief that Cid has the capacity for good and that if he grows up with Sara’s motherly guidance he will be a benefit to the world. Old Joe, on the other hand, firmly believes that evil is in Cid’s nature, that no matter what happens and who raises him he is destined to become The Rainmaker and inadvertently kill Old Joe’s wife. Thankfully, the film doesn’t try to answer this question and leaves it wide open to interpretation. In the end, Cid survives and is going to grow up with Sara, and we, the audience, have no clue how it’s going to turn out because we never get any real backstory on The Rainmaker; come the closing credits, it’s entirely possible that Young Joe has changed nothing and Cid will still become The Rainmaker, but it’s also just as possible that he has succeeded.
Another major philosophical question prevalent throughout the movie is whether or not the ends justify the means, or whether or not good intentions justify evil actions. For the early part of the film, Old Joe is significantly more sympathetic to the audience than Young Joe since the former merely wants to find a way to save his wife and correct the future. However, this changes significantly once we learn how Old Joe means to change the future; the fact that he is willing to kill children speaks volumes about the love and devotion he has for his wife, but is it truly worth it? Would you kill innocent children in order to save the ones you loved? It’s a hard question to answer, and again the movie handles it perfectly by leaving it up to the audience to decide rather than force its own opinions down your throat.
What Doesn’t Work
1) The Pacing
Pacing, in my opinion, is one of the hardest parts of a movie to get right, especially in thrillers and action films where one mishandled scene can kill all of the tension and ruin the entire thing. Unfortunately, Looper falls victim to a loss of momentum, and while it far from ruins the movie, it certainly is noticeable and significantly cuts the tension built up over the first hour of the movie.
Looper’s pacing throughout its first half is a perfect example of how to build tension. When the film begins it waists no time getting down to business; we quickly learn about 2044 and the concept behind “loopers”, we see the stakes and consequences that come with the risky job through Seth’s inability to “close his Loop,” we get curious about Old Joe’s intentions once he returns to the past, and we anxiously watch all the cat and mouse games between Young and Old Joe; it basically all adds up to an extremely well paced and captivating first hour. However, all the forward momentum comes to a screeching halt once the farm comes into the story. It’s not that the farm scenes are uninteresting or poorly written per say, the problem is that once we meet Sara and Cid, we can guess exactly where the story is going and, by default, we end up waiting around, eagerly anticipating the eventual climax of Old Joe coming after Cid.
When Young Joe is first introduced to Cid it’s pretty easy to infer that Cid will end up being The Rainmaker; Johnson spends so much time characterizing Cid and Sara that for them to be inconsequential to the story at hand would be a true jaw dropping surprise. As a result, the second half of the film becomes a waiting game as Johnson cross cuts scenes of Young Joe connecting to Sara and Cid with Old Joe murdering innocent children he suspects may be The Rainmaker. While these individual scenes of Old Joe are fantastic (Bruce Willis knocks it out of the park), you can’t help but want him to skip over these merciless killings and make his way to the farm so that the real showdown can begin. Thankfully, the final thirty minutes brings everyone back together for a crazy and emotional climax, capping the film off with the same intensity with which it began, but the inconsistent pace is pretty hard to miss and slows things down when you want them to rev up the most.
2) Kid Blue
Something I can’t quite understand about Looper is the purpose of the character Kid Blue, Abe’s henchman played by Noah Segan. What’s strange to me is the fact that his character arc seems to go nowhere at all. For the entire movie it seems as though Johnson is building up Kid Blue to have a significant part in the climax – maybe he’s going to end up killing one of the Joes or maybe he’s what causes Cid to become The Rainmaker, but, in the end, Young Joe just kills him during a shootout and the story moves on as if Blue never existed. What starts as an interesting subplot about Blue trying to prove himself to mob boss Abe ends up being a pile of nothingness. To me, it seems that Kid Blue’s only purpose is to put a face to the men chasing both Joes, but besides that I cant think of any other reason for the amount of screen time he receives. For a while, there is the possibility that Kid Blue is Abe’s younger self because it’s established early on that Abe is from the future, a crime boss sent back to run the Loopers in the past. While that ambiguous question adds some complexity to Kid Blue’s character, it, like the rest of Blue’s arc, goes nowhere; ultimately, Blue’s arc feels unfulfilled and slightly unnecessary.
So that’s what I thought about Looper. Do you agree? Disagree? What do you think worked or didn’t? Did any of it make sense? Is your mind, like all of ours here at Reel Reactions, still blown? Sound off in the comments below!
Article by James Hausman