I love the word blunderbuss. Born out of the Dutch for thunder-box, it describes an antiquated shotgun making up for limited range with tremendous brain-splattering force. It is a word of another time, one of manybeautifully asynchronous touches in Rian Johnson’s Looper, a fantastic film set three (and six) decades into the future, where an assassin fetishises pocket-watches and has a thing for record players. As scripts about dystopian futures go, Looper also feels old-timey solid, much more Soylent Green than In Time, a film with an irresistible Christopher Nolan premise but crafted ingeniously and tightly enough to earn Stanley Kubrick’s stamp of approval.
It is also fiendishly hard to describe, not least because knowing too much about the plot would be a shame. Here, then, are the barest of bones: We are in Kansas, 2044. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a coldly efficient hitman who stands in a field picking off bodies delivered to him from the future — time-travel is invented thirty years later, in 2074, and outlawed instantly. Which means only the best-connected mobsters use it, using the past as current criminals use the East Hudson river or the Mumbai Local tracks: as a wastebin for corpses.
Joe, a pragmatic junkie saving up to someday move to France, works smoothly enough till one day — in a routine, inevitable act of imposed ‘retirement’ called ‘closing the loop’ — Joe from 2074 shows up as his victim. Its the bosses making sure these killers, these loopers, are as cleanly disposed as can be, and killing your future self comes with a big gold payday. So after thirty years of spending, you’re captured, trussed and thrown into a time machine (looking decidedly Jules Verne in its steampunkiness) and sent to be killed by your own bullet. It’s a magnificent concept, and I do hope this film gets the graphic novel spinoffs it deserves.
Future Joe (or, to keep things slightly sane, Old Joe) is played by Bruce Willis, a bit of casting that automatically implies he doesn’t just roll over and die. Old Joe’s here on a mission but Young Joe isn’t ready for a metaphysically defiant tag-team: he knows how gristly it can get to ‘let your loop run’, how much the mob is baying for his blood, a situation he plans to rectify by killing Old Joe and kicking off his thirty-year hourglass. And lest this seem like a mere actioner — with odds somewhat evened by the fact that Young Joe is out to kill Old Joe but Old Joe can’t, for obvious reasons, attack Young Joe in any serious capacity — let me assure you it isn’t, and ask instead that you buckle your brain up for a genuinely unpredictable ride.
A remarkably written film, it poses the biggest time-travel questions — Would you go back in time and kill, say, Hitler? What if he was an adorable young boy at the time? Also, if you were told what part of your future you will regret most, could you just sidestep it and walk away? — and tackles them inventively, brilliantly and non-squeamishly.
Importantly, it is also not an obsessively technical film, and once you wrap your head around that exquisite basic concept, Looper relies more on its characters and narrative than on — as Old Joe dismissively and memorably says — time-travel diagrams made out of straws. The result is a frequently surprising ride that refreshingly (and impressively) eschews twists as narrative gimmicks and stays consistently crackling.
The spectacularly talented Gordon-Levitt pushes himself over the line yet again, uncannily capturing the seamiest of Moonlighting-era Bruce and not just because of his Willis-ised face. Young Joe is a self-centered and morally hollow killer, and yet the amazing JGL turns him, character warts and all, into a hero. Willis, meanwhile, as the recently-redeemed Old Joe now looking to do the unforgivable with his eye on the bigger picture, brings immense vulnerability to the part — outside of bloody grit, of course. There is some yippee-ki-yay motherlooper business, of course, but gunning down goons has little to do with why this is one of the actor’s boldest career decisions.
Emily Blunt and Jeff Daniels feature as fascinatingly hard-to-read characters, while the young Pierce Gagnon — in a devastatingly tricky role — is both excellent and adorable. Steve Yedlin’s cinematography is strikingly fluid and, like the screenplay, graphic-novelly in nature as it pulls in (closing up on a turquoise heel to signal arrival at a club, for example) and zooms out, here showing the bleak 2044 scene with telekinetic idiots trying to impress girls with levitated coins. And then, thanks to Joe being wise enough to heed future advice about picking China as a destination over France, we see some lovely, lovely Future Shanghai. Helluva sexy, this film.
Looper has a mixed bag of influences — as diverse as Memento, The Terminator and The Omen — but proves to be sharper, smarter and more ambitious than even those unforgettable ones. There are minor plotholes, but the film bounds over them with swift, self-assured grace, climaxing ultimately with a finely foreshadowed finale that ties everything up shrewdly and masterfully: a rarity for the science-fiction genre, and a tremendous narrative achievement that makes me long to watch it again right now. Rian Johnson’s terrific debut Brick and whimsical Brothers Bloom appear to be but warm-ups: Looper is one for the ages.
Rating: 5 stars
First published Rediff, October 12, 2012
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