Let's do the timewarp again
[This article contains 'spoilers' aplenty]
Looper opens almost silently, with only a ticking pocketwatch and the sound of chattering occupying the soundtrack. But it's swiftly followed by an unexpected bang. In one of the film's neatest visual tricks, Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) calmly waits in a field, armed with a specialised shotgun. Suddenly, a time traveller appears in front of him, bound and gagged. Joe fires before the hapless victim even realises he has arrived in the past, and no time is wasted disposing of the body (not before Joe helps himself to the silver pieces attached to his hit). It's a stylish opening, and a clever cinematic realisation and affirmation of the film's driving concepts before a word of dialogue has even been spoken.
Not that Looper is devoid of exposition: like Inception before it, the film explains its big ideas at length to ensure the audience is not left behind. But Looper is more successful than Nolan's attempts at the same, and there's no real 'Ellen Page as jargon translator' on board here. Paul Dano's Seth somewhat fulfills that function, that's true - his subplot vitally introducing us to the concept of 'closing the loop' through action rather than words. But Dano is violently dispatched in the first act, and the plot has a lot to get through in the proceeding hour and a half. While there is voiceover and exposition, Looper achieves its necessary explanatory goals in ways both obvious and elegant.
Worthy of particular praise is the film's exemplary world building. It is the rare science fiction film with a futuristic world that feels convincing. In many ways, the world of 2044 is recognisable as a variation of our own, with suitably convincing alterations. Overpopulation has led to a pronounced class divide and even riots, but these are background details and the characters' do not stop and explain them to the audience: it's their everyday reality, after all, so why would they need to? There are more fantastical touches - hoverbikes, advanced weaponry and slicker smartphones - yet it's also a world of retro chic and familiar automobiles. This is a functioning and believable society, albeit a bleak one, and not a world of impractical neon and jumpsuits. Jeff Daniels even wryly comments on that fact, alongside amusing teasers that China is the place to be in the 2070s. Looper's budget is a modest $30 million (modest considering the cast, anyway). That relatively restrictive budget happily allows a futuristic world to emerge that's devoid of the showy, unbelievable excess of bigger budgeted peers. Shot in appropriately grainy, atmospheric and unhip 35mm, it's also an intoxicatingly cinematic universe that demands to be seen in its non-digital incarnation wherever possible.
What of the time travel? Although Shane Carruth receives a special thanks in the credits, Looper does not offer Primer levels of complexity. Nor should it. Instead, a high concept is introduced and convincingly realised through an accessible, involving genre story. When Old Joe (Bruce Willis) arrives on screen, so do alternate timelines and potential paradoxes. In one of the film's most successful sequences, a montage follows Joe for thirty years of addiction, violence and - ultimately - love, before jumping backwards and establishing the film's 'primary reality': the future has been changed, and is now uncertain for everyone. Old Joe's timeline is one big loop, encompassing two conflicting version of events (to borrow a Lost term, he is the constant). Yet after seeing the horrific resolution of Old Seth's backwards trip, we know the stakes are fatally high. Having Old Joe know exactly how events would have played out would have diminished the film's dramatic weight. Instead, we're treated to an engaging portrayal of a man experiencing an unfolding paradox to the point where even his own memories are increasingly uncertain.
Director Rian Johnson (this his third successful feature in a row) makes perhaps the film's boldest play around the halfway mark: planting Young Joe in a farm with single mother Sara (Emily Blunt, who I must admit I barely recognised) and her son Cid (Pierce Gagnon). The tone shifts down several gears, and the last hour of the film is relatively light on setpieces and genre thrills until the last fifteen minutes or so. Initially it seemed like a strange decision, and some scenes seemed to drag. But it's ultimately a rewarding one. Time is spent building relationships, exploring conflicts, emphasising motivations and convincingly preempting revelations. Old Joe particularly has everything to lose, and his desperation makes his oftentimes morally reprehensible actions - including, but not limited to, child murder - credible within the film's internal logic. Since he is unable to harm his younger self but said younger self is able to harm the older self, the antagonistic relationship between the two Joes is a fascinating and unpredictable one: although, in a particularly nice touch, they still order the same diner breakfast. Both incarnations are both suitably grizzled and ethically dubious: addicted to drugs and undeterred by results by violence, the two Joes aren't always likeable, but their respective journeys are fascinating ones. When they're separated and Young Joe ends up on the farm, tensions are constantly building as we hurtle towards an inevitably paradoxical climax.
When TK is introduced early on, I admit I thought it was merely another of those small details that enhanced the world. Given that it receives its own expository voiceover, I should have been thinking further ahead. The eventual assertion that Cid is indeed the superpowered Rainmaker is slowly but effectively revealed, and while it is one of the most fantastical of the film's ideas (even the time machine is a grungy, homemade device in an abandoned warehouse) it's also one of its best. It reinforces the cleverness of Johnson's decision to focus on the farm happenings, as Young Joe's relationships with the kid and his mother create further curious conflicts - and, vitally, it's the revelation that definitively differentiates the moral compass of Young and Old. The 'evil child' subgenre is a well populated one, but this film happily invigorates an oftentimes all too lazy trope. It leads to some of the film's most memorable images: special effects being utilised stunningly during the violently telekinetic sequences.
While everything concludes satisfactorily and relatively definitely (our protagonist is dead, after all, in an act of redemptive self-sacrifice), Cid's future is partially left up to the audience's imagination. No cheap flash forwards: we can hope everything ends well, but the ending is a welcome mix of the momentarily satisfying and the potentially uncertain. We hope mother and child live happily ever after, but the preceding film was sufficiently to leave us a little uneasy.
On the whole, Looper is a welcome hybrid of tradition and ambition. Some of its darker moments and the hardboiled, morally dubious characters are increasingly rare in mainstream cinema, although pay further homage to the classic noir stylings Johnson has openly declared himself indebted to over his short but sweet feature career. The conceptual core of the film may be unusual and potentially convoluted, but the director has crafted an accessible, entertaining thriller around it - it's not a full on mindfuck, but it is complicated enough to ensure your brain never switches off. The slow second act will catch many viewers off guard, but the mandatory thrills and action sequences are therefore hard-earned through stellar world building and character work. Primer may have irrevocably defined the time travel movie for many, but Looper aims its sights at everyone, and emerges as this year's smartest multiplex thriller.