30 September 2012

Thrown for a Loop

"This time travel shit fries your brain, like an egg." These wise words are spoken by a wonderfully maniacal Jeff Daniels as Abe, a crime boss sent back to 2044 from the future to supervise the assassins known as loopers, in Rian Johnson's new film Looper. These time-travel movies aren't particularly easy on the brain either, but Looper is sharp, thoughtful, action-packed and clever enough to treat time travel as a means of achieving the plot, rather than as its main point.

At a first glance, the world in 2044 doesn't look so different from today, but we soon start to notice the great chasm between the wealthy and the poor, the odd touches of futuristic gadgetry (including a malfunctioning hover bike) and the excess violence. Time travel will be invented in the future, but will be immediately outlawed and used only by criminal warlords, who send people they want killed back to the past, bound and blindfolded, at which point a looper will assassinate them. Loopers, such as Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), enjoy a cushy life--they have enough money for all the sex, drugs and fast cars they crave, and are able to stash away bars of gold and silver for their retirement. But part of the deal is that when it has been determined that their loop must be closed, their future self will be sent back to them to assassinate, and they then know the date and circumstances of their death and are allowed to retire.

When Joe's friend Seth (Paul Dano) botches his own loop-closing, he goes on the run and tries to hide out at Joe's place, telling him that some big gangster boss dude in the future, known as the Rainmaker, is ordering the closure of all of the loops ASAP. Abe can torture Future Seth at the same time as Present Seth--knifing a message onto Present Seth's arm means that Future Seth ends up with a nasty scar, and so on. Neither Seth has a happy ending. Joe vows that he will kill his future self when his time comes, but he doesn't count on his future self being Bruce Willis, white t-shirted up and ready for action. On arriving in 2044, Future Joe immediately turns around so that Present Joe's bullet bounces off the gold bars that line his back. He then knocks Present Joe out cold (the first of many people--including women and children--to do this; poor Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and runs off to deal with some future business.

But then we see Future Joe being zapped back again and this time, Present Joe hits his target, and we see a montage of the next 30 years. Although Present Joe is learning French and plans to retire there, Abe advises him to go to China instead ("I'm from the future; go to China"), where he meets and falls in love with a beautiful woman. Life is great, until some thugs break in to their house and haul him off to be sent back to 2044. Somewhere along the way, Joe apparently learned some fighting skills, though, hence he arrives in 2044 unbound and without a hood covering his face. Present Joe still wants to kill his future self and for everything to work out according to plan; Future Joe wants to find the young Rainmaker and kill him to prevent his future with his wife being destroyed. Handily, he has the place and date of birth of the Rainmaker and has narrowed it down to three kids and is setting out to find them all, Terminator 2-style. Meanwhile, Present Joe is hiding out in the Kansas countryside, where he takes refuge in a farm owned by Sara (Emily Blunt), who also has a very smart but rather creepy son.

Things get very complicated in the film's final act. In one of the rare scenes where the two Joes actually have a conversation, Future Joe tells his younger self that he "could talk about [time travel] all day and make diagrams with straws" but there isn't time; I felt like I could have done with the diagram, but maybe they're saving it for the DVD extras, or maybe they can zap me one back from the future. There are paradoxes and it doesn't quite hold together--or maybe my brain just can't contemplate that many possible worlds simultaneously. I felt a bit like Future Joe when he tells Present Joe that his memory of 2044 is very fuzzy, like a big cloud, and that specific memories only crystallise shortly after the event has actually taken place. There are a number of other interesting issues raised in the film and spoilerish plot points that I won't reveal here.

Regardless of the brain ache, I really enjoyed Looper. Gordon-Levitt was good and had enough prosthetics to be reasonably convincing younger Bruce Willis, and Willis, well, he did what he always does and runs around with big guns, doing what he thinks is the right thing and he, like Jeff Daniels, gets most of the chuckle-worthy lines. Emily Blunt puts in a great performance as the tough, hard mama grizzly who isn't going to let any of the Joes hurt her son. Of course, Looper is really a human drama about identity, nature versus nurture, and how doing the right thing depends not just on who you are, but who you will be. Overall, Looper is a smart, observant human drama, which combines a compelling plot with interesting characters and solid acting.

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