Saturday, January 26, 2013

Twist and Churn: Rian Johnson's Looper

Looper certainly lives up to its title. It's a twisty time-travel extravaganza that moves swiftly while tying the viewer in knots as we try to puzzle it out. Director Rian Johnson hasn't taken much time to make sense out of this existential SF noir, but I will say that it has more of a pulse than his 2005 debut Brick (which was about as thick as one); and it's less irritating than his hyper-antic The Brothers Bloom (2008) which had a bad case of the tics. Nevertheless, having a motor still doesn't guarantee a fun ride. People will tell you that sometimes, with movies like Looper, you need to just suspend your disbelief. But how can you suspend disbelief if you don't believe in what you're seeing to begin with?

The action takes place largely in Kansas City in the year 2044 where the city seems to be completely run by hoodlums. (As usual with these tech-noirs, nobody feels any great need to tell us why.) Joseph (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young gangster who works for the 'company' as a 'looper' (essentially a staff employed hit-man). In the future, time-travel has been invented but it is illegal. So the criminal empire, which by 2074 is run from Shanghai, sends its victims back to Kansas City in 2044, to be shot and killed by the 'loopers' as a way to dispose of the evidence. The 'loopers' are then paid with bars of silver providing that their victim does not escape. (Are the Shanghai investigators of organized crime in 2074 really that dense that they never figure out the mob's little scheme?) Furthermore, when the Shanghai 'company' wants to 'close the loop,' they inform Abe (Jeff Daniels), an avuncular Don in Kansas City who believes in literally driving his points home with a ball-peen hammer, who then has the 'looper' kill the older version of himself when he is sent back. (Are the criminals as dense as the authorities? Why would you get the younger 'looper' to snuff out the older version of himself? Wouldn't he be the least likely candidate to hire? Or is this what Rian Johnson considers an expression of his character's existential angst?) Of course, Joseph ends up getting his 'loop' closed, but when he meets his older self (Bruce Willis), he turns out to be craftier than his younger counterpart and he escapes. Apparently, in the future Shanghai, Joseph is happily married until the mob boss, the Rainmaker, decides to close his 'loop' and murder his wife. The older Joseph comes back to the past to find the younger Rainmaker – a mere child – to kill him and then change the outcome of his future.

Probably the worst temptation in time travel pictures is to become deterministic, where the protagonist's actions can change precisely the outcome of history, because determinism has a way of taking the air right out of a drama. One of the reasons that Stephen King's 11/22/63, where a man goes into the past to prevent President Kennedy's assassination, is so enjoyable is that King works against our deterministic thinking and opens up the narrative to more ambiguous possibilities. In trying to change one tragic event, you give life to other possible tragic occurrences. For all its pretzel plotting, Looper ends up following a pretty narrow path (one inspired by The Terminator, Twelve Monkeys and Blade Runner) which gives the actors no more than one-dimension to play. Which is a shame because Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as he showed in 50/50 and his little seen firecracker part in Elmore Leonard's Killshot, is a resourceful and versatile performer. In Looper, he seems to be hopelessly trying to follow the plot rather than play a role. He's trapped like a strait-jacket in his hip black suit and Keanu-coiffed hair. (At times, he moves like Jude Law's robot Joe in Spielberg's A.I., only Law's robot was more animated than Joseph.)

The doppelgänger effect is also poorly conceived in Looper because Bruce Willis doesn't match up with Levitt to give the character a unity of soul (no great loss, however, since there's not much soul present to unify with). Willis has only one truly enjoyable spontaneous moment in the picture anyway and that's when he first spots his future bride in the middle of some gangland mayhem in a Shanghai bar. He gets this goofy, eager little boy expression on his face which she greets firmly with a right stiff finger. Emily Blunt as the rural mother with the possible baby Rainmaker seems out of some frontier western with sassy dialogue to match. Given her tough mama persona, you can't help but wonder how come women don't warrant 'looper' consideration. Aren't there female gangs anymore in the future? How bland can the future get? (The picture instead sucks up to boy's club posturing and exclusivity as nakedly as The Adjustment Bureau did - a film, by the way, which also featured the luckless Emily Blunt.) As for her little boy (Pierce Gagnon), the possible gangster kingpin of the future, his screaming tantrums and making objects lift and fly is nothing more than a throwback to The Bad Seed (by way of Stephen King's Firestarter). Joseph's final gesture to prevent the rise of the Rainmaker also makes no sense if the child's personality is already demonic to begin with.

One of the increasing problems I see in so many of the celebrated young auteurs working today is their lack of concern for any narrative coherence. Like the French New Wave directors of the Sixties, they are also in love with a spectrum of movie styles. They even take their inspiration from popular film genres, too, but they don't really give those genres new life like their predecessors: instead they embalm them. P.T. Anderson's The Master, for instance, is cinephilia at its most solipsistic with no relation to dramatic logic. Like his previous films (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood), the rigorously stylized and obsessive approach creates its own desert island where film technique becomes a fetish at the expense of sense and sensibility. Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom is a picture of human behaviour – adult and child alike –as one might have perceived it at the age of ten. Anderson's idea of whimsy is to continually enshrine the kind of adolescent narcissism that most of us learn to outgrow. His films (with the exception of Fantastic Mr. Fox) aren't about confronting the pains of moving into adulthood. They are about protecting the tender preciousness of staying young – in other words, tributes to arrested development. These films are intent on turning away from the emotional entanglements of drama for a more hermetically sealed experience. Rian Johnson, in Looper, also creates his own hermetically sealed world, a cuisinart of familiar tropes, that doesn't really deliver much in the way of pleasure. It's all technical twists with little drama to shout about.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier is currently conducting a five-part lecture series called Woody Allen: Past and Present (with film clips) at the JCC Miles Nadal Centre in Toronto each Monday until February 11 from 7-9pm.

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