There’s this trend with my moviegoing experience: The more I’m looking forward to a movie, the most disappointed I am by it. Case in point: Looper. I’d been anticipating it for months, following its updates on Tumblr from back before it was even shooting, getting all excited about what director Rian Johnson’s (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) take on sci-fi would end up being like.
The answer: Kind of a mess.
A spoiler-free summary before I delve into the (spoiler-filled, so be warned) review: Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a specialized type of hit man called a looper. When his employers, who hail from 30 years in the future, want someone killed, they send them back in time—where their body won’t be identifiable—for a looper to shoot. This cut-and-tried business arrangement is complicated when a future version of Joe (Bruce Willis) shows up.
Get it? Got it? Good.
My main problem with the movie is that it has a great setup but very little by way of payoff. It just didn’t deliver. When, early in the movie, Joe’s friend Seth (Paul Dano) warns him about the criminal mastermind the Rainmaker, who is from the future and is “closing all of the loops”—i.e., sending the 30-years-older loopers back in time for their younger selves to kill, thereby minimizing their risk of ever being discovered—I started to get excited. “Oh, yeah, futuristic mob boss doing some crazy stuff that Joe is going to have to uncover and stop! This is gonna be good.”
But it wasn’t. When Older!Joe comes back, it’s to kill the Rainmaker while he’s still a kid so that, 30 years in the future, his goons won’t shoot Older!Joe’s wife. While I like in theory that Johnson’s combining the sci-fi epic of time-traveling assassins with the personal drama of a man just trying to save his wife, the two didn’t mesh together very well.
(Also symptomatic of this problem: In the world of Looper, time travel and telekinesis exist. Look, I can accept one or the other, but the fact that both have sprung into existence at some point, independent of each other, strains credulity. I kept expecting them to be connected somehow–like the telekinetic powers of the Rainmaker were involved in making time travel possible. Or something. That would’ve been awesome. As-is, there’s a time travel element and a mutant-superpowers element, and they bump into each other awkwardly throughout the course of the film like bumper cars driven by drunk teenagers.)
I was left wondering what the Rainmaker did that was so bad besides closing all the loops, which A) was a part of the loopers’ contracts—it was going to happen to every single one of them eventually, all the Rainmaker did was clump them together, B) is seen by many loopers as being a good thing, as closing their loop comes with a ton of money—plus, as stated, even if they don’t like it, they already agreed to it, and C) all he’s really doing is putting an end to his hitman operation—which, to me, seems like a good thing. Everyone’s so afraid of him that you assume he’s up to something awful in closing all the loops, but there’s never any hint of what that is.
For all we’re told how awful he is, we never see it for ourselves. And that makes one of the film’s climactic moments—when the young Rainmaker (Pierce Gagnon), at this point probably four or five, is revealed to have crazy telekinetic powers that allow him to explode people at will—less emotionally poignant than I think Johnson wanted it to be. This kid is destined to be evil! He’s going to use his powers to take over major cities by himself in a matter of months! Should Joe kill him? Should Joe let Older!Joe kill him? Is the future set in stone, or can the future-Rainmaker’s mother (played by Emily Blunt) raise him right so he won’t turn all supervillain? If I’d have seen any examples of what that adorable little moppet was destined to have done, I might’ve been rooting for him to grow up good so he wouldn’t do those things. But, as is… meh.
There’s one particular character that encapsulated this problem for me better than any other: Kid Blue (Noah Segan), crime boss Abe’s (Jeff Daniels) protege, who has a vendetta going against Joe because Abe thinks of Joe as a son and Kid Blue as incompetence personified, unable to do anything—including capture Joe—without screwing it up.
He’s a ridiculous character, comic relief for much of the movie, and yet when Older!Joe kills Abe, the lingering close-up that Kid Blue gets made me think that the character is actually one of the more complex in the film. Abe’s dead, and Kid Blue’s still determined to go after Joe, to finish the last job his surrogate father gave to him. He’s not just a sycophant! He really did love and look up to Abe! There’s character development here, he’s going to go after Joe and maybe even be successful in killing him, which would be a really interesting, if somewhat predictable, thing to do narratively, and…
No. Kid Blue may have had that character-defining moment, but if where his story goes afterwards is any indication, Johnson doesn’t seem to care about it. Kid Blue’s entire purpose after that point in the movie is to go after Joe and be handily defeated by him, in the process distracting Joe for the two minutes Older!Joe needs to get past him and go after the Rainmaker.
Again: Great set-up. Awful follow-through. In that respect, Looper reminds me of nothing else more than the first season of Heroes.
There’s a ton of examples in Looper where something was introduced that I thought would go somewhere at the time, only for it to be dropped. Like the blood on the silver and the ladder as Joe was escaping from Kid Blue shortly after Older!Joe came back: It was treated as being narratively important during that scene, but nearest I can tell it was just evidence of a struggle when Kid Blue came to get Seth earlier, which is A) we sort of already knew—or at least we knew that Kid Blue went on to torture and murder Seth after finding him, and B) is completely irrelevant to the story.
Also, Sara, the Rainmaker’s mother. In one scene she mentions that she knows about Loopers. But aren’t they a secret? How does she know about them? Is this movie going to do anywhere with this? What was with one of the possible Rainmakers just happening to be the daughter of Joe’s sex worker girlfriend? That’s too random not to mean anything, and yet it’s just… dropped.
Have I been watching Primer or something? Are all these little odds ‘n’ ends something that I should be putting together to reveal a whole story, a bigger truth? One where the Big Bad exists as something more as an impetus for Older!Joe to go on a revenge quest to save his wife? We never get to know her (does she even have any lines? I don’t remember) and are meant to feel sad about her death only because Older!Joe does, because he tells Joe how great she is and that she saved him from drug addiction. But I wasn’t feeling it.
Show, don’t tell, Looper. Show, don’t tell.
(Note: If it turns out that Looper is in fact a complicated puzzle and I completely misread the whole thing, I will gladly eat my hat and apologize to Johnson.)
On the plus side: The visuals are amazing, and the acting was great, particularly Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s (even though his prosthetic nose and weird why-is-that-there lipcolor did more to distract me than make him look like Bruce Willis. He had the voice down pat, though).
When there are so many sequels and reboots out there, I love it when a movie comes along that’s not based on any previous movie or TV show. I applaud Rian Johnson for his great story idea and for taking the risk involved in making a movie that’s not part of a pre-existing, virtually-guaranteed-to-make-money franchise.
I just wish it’d been better.
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