“That doesn’t matter!” screams Bruce Willis across a barren rural diner, “If we’re gonna get into the technicals of this time-travel shit then we’ll be here all day, making diagrams out of straws. None of that matters”*! He’s right and I agree with Rian completely, the man obviously feeding him the very meta-line. The logic and logistics of a movie’s technology aren’t as important as the tale that they are being used to tell and yet what let me down about Looper was that it put its focus firmly on the latter when the former is what it was best at. The picture plays out like one of its altered timelines; starting in one place and playing out straight before shifting on a sudden to somewhere completely different, making a drastic change and losing a lot of its impact in the translation.
*Paraphrasing from memory; real script better written.
Normally if someone takes issue with the tail-end of a time travel film it is for lapses in logic or a limit to the heights that they can suspend their disbelief, but neither are much of an issue with this movie. Looper makes complete sense to me, I brought into its world well enough from the get go and I imagine that others will too because there is really very little time travel in it. On a technical level the film plays out straight with all scenes in sequence barring a single montage and stylistic Rashomon swap in perspectives. It’s a very cerebral movie yes, but one that massages not stresses the brain-stems.
It is also particularly easy to swallow on a plot level since the only time travel that we see occurs once and off camera; the picture’s present day is 2041, it starts and is set entirely in a future frightening for its relevance. So those put off by over complicated narratives shouldn’t be afraid to check it out; this future is also very realistically depicted, simply a degraded version of our own, a realization of all those political promises and so it is similarly safe for those afraid of overly alien sci-fi.
The main reason though that those who normally stay away from the genre should check this film out is the name of the auteur as its helm: Rian Johnson. Brick broke him into the industry with a bullet – and is referenced nicely here with a subtle footstep gag thrown into one of the action scenes – with it’s cleverly constructed contemporary noir concept and although no one saw it The Brothers Bloom saw his complex sleight-of-hand scriptwriting prowess put on show in the long con genre; based on these past works if there was anyone that could handle the traps and tribulations of time-travel it was him.
My issue with the film though came from the way it mirrored his most recent directorial project Breaking Bad. First of all there is another bald guy in the lead here and secondly it is paced like one of that shows seasons in that the middle of the movie is slow, suburban character drama. There I like the idea but here it lost me a little. The logline for Looper is so good, so strong that it could easily carry an entire feature on its own but instead of sticking to it the script gets sidelined by a second, less interesting sci-fi idea midway through and this then dominates the run-time. It’s only literally the Looper that we expect for like an hour.
Though what an hour that is! The skills displayed here by Rian Johnson do not disappoint; the script is smart, tight and sparking with the way he shoots the scenes only making them so much stronger. His work is ridiculously amazing, award winning I would say: Best Screenplay, Best Direction and Best Editing noms at the very least. See the Shanghai montage, the blood splattered condensation of Joe’s daily grind, the nightclub scenes, the highs, the sparkling repartee between him and Abe in the offices for examples and whatever you do don’t miss what is surely the darkest, most horrifying murder put to screen in several years.
The turn by Levitt should be up there too, taking the somewhat tacky idea of trying to replicate a younger Bruce Willis and executing it brilliantly. Despite the two not looking anything alike in real life I totally brought their connection here, not for the computer generated tweaks but because of the nuances that he put into the performance: the eyebrows, the smirks and the softly spoken sarcasm were all in the style of classic era Willis. So whenever they were together on screen sparks flew, but unfortunately that doesn’t occur all that often.
Seeing the two sit across a table and talk in that aforementioned diner scene is terrific but then they are separated, Willis seeps slowly off the screen, the script stretches out, the story swaps focus and most of what I was loving in the film stops, replaced instead by something safer, sillier and much more shallow. There is maybe a movie here, but it’s not one that I would have put at the top of my must see list, even if the style were as stellar here as it was when the film first started ( and spoiler, it isn’t).
What the movie loses in time-traveler action it tries to make up for in meaning. It turns the story into something much more metaphorical about our own real life loops: about children becoming their parents, power begetting power, the multiple paths that all of our futures could take, the ability that we have to change each of these and what we do with that knowledge. It also takes the time travel repercussions to a really dark place and these are all great ideas, it’s just that with only half a film to work with they don’t get explored deeply enough.
The change in setting required by this swap ( and perhaps the films budget) also lessens its impact. The first hour is a socially conscious piece of sci-fi; the loop of depression and economic inequality that we have entered into now is what drives the decay of this dystopic future and the divide between those who have and who havn’t is made abundantly clear. This reminded me a lot of what Mute might be if that other indie director gets to make his sci-fi vision, film noir style taken to sci-fi extremes: crime, drugs, prostitution, depravity, moral ambiguity and ambivalent men. Though the second hour is set exclusively in a corn field and the adjacent farmhouse, neither of which mean quite as much to me.
Sure there is still some cool stuff in this half, including a nicely moving moral but funnily enough none of it is as clearly defined as the pseudo-science: I understood the movie’s mangled timeline better than I did its emotional intentions. Again, what matters in a movie is the tale that it tells and for me the story here stops halfway through, it lets its own loop run and it seems that this is a case of over writing; Johnson returned to the final draft a different man, one wanting to tell a different story and so the first one goes unfinished. The brilliant emotional beats of Bruce’s character aren’t closed, Paul Dano’s role is never returned to, Jeff Daniel’s character doesn’t get the twist that I envisioned him having ( or anything else of substance) and I don’t buy why this is the case.
It could be argued that the film was making the point that in life we never know what’s going to happen next or who one changed step could lead us to meeting and loving and marrying and making a difference with and that would have been a brilliant theme but it simply isn’t satisfactorily sold by the film itself. Perhaps upon a future re-watch I will see the movie in a different light and like it more with the knowledge of where it goes, but if I was able to go back I might just warn myself to leave halfway and keep the ideal image alive.