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Hey, Katie, it’s me, you. Yes, you, from five months in the future. This message is timed to hit your inbox April 12, 2012, just as you watch the first trailer for director Rian Johnson’s Looper.
I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, God, that’s an insanely cool concept. It’s in great hands with Johnson. Plus, Bruce Willis playing an older version of Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Epic. But wow, it looks violent, and excessive violence makes me barfy. I really want to see this, but can I handle it?” You’re about to spend the next five months vacillating between intense anticipation and a terrified, creeping nausea.
Well, I’m here to tell you that you just watched Looper, and all of that anxiety was for naught. Not only did you make it through, you enjoyed yourself so much that you abandoned propriety during a few particularly quiet, awe-filled scenes by audibly exclaiming, “Holy shit!” (You may want to apologize in advance to the guy sitting next to you.)
You already know the premise: Gordon-Levitt is Joe, a contract killer — known as a looper — working in Kansas City in the year 2044. Time travel hasn’t been invented yet, but it’s possible in 2074, when disposing of bodies is much trickier for the mafia. Joe’s job is to get rid of those targets sent back in time — show up at a designated spot, wait for the loop to appear with a hood over his head, promptly shoot him and reap the hefty monetary rewards. Despite living the good life in futuristic America (which includes an addiction to eye-dropped drugs, nightly outings to clubs, a sweet bachelor pad and some seriously cool toys — flashy cars and hovering motorcycles called slatbikes, among them), Loopers are always aware that, at some point, they’ll be charged with “closing their loop.” That is, killing their future selves. If they let their loop run, they’ll be pursued by boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) and his team of henchmen – including young, trigger-happy Kid Blue (Noah Segan) – lest the ripple effects cause chaos.
Of course, as you know, Joe comes face to face with his future self, and is gobsmacked long enough for Old Joe to overpower him and escape. The moments leading up to all of this seamlessly entrench you in the futuristic atmosphere and Joe’s solitary, selfish, calculating lifestyle, and instill a sense of intense menace regarding the price a Looper pays when he lets his loop run. In fact, once you’re witness to Old Joe and Young Joe having a heated discussion in a diner and Old Joe grumbles, “Shut your child mouth,” you realize the line also applies to you, as the events preceding it have left your jaw agape.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret, too: You think you know what this movie is about, but there’s a massive portion that hasn’t been revealed in trailers or marketing materials — an incredible feat, considering the spoiler-heavy environment in which studios and filmmakers operate. Everything about Looper is a build, sometimes slow, sometimes explosive, but the tension never stops.
And that probably makes you nervous, I know, because tension isn’t your favorite. I’m not going to lie to you, this is a violent movie, and you will white-knuckle your way through it. But that’s because it’s a movie about violence — the endless circle that is disposing and being disposed of, the choices we make in our lives that affect everything around us. There is a point to the gruesomeness, which begins with a cold, calculated bent (quick edits of Joe’s many hits are, in typical Johnson fashion, highly stylized, and perfectly illustrate the mundane, unfeeling nature of Joe’s profession). When the sources, repercussions and effects of the film’s violence take a turn, there’s good reason.
It also helps that Johnson is one of your favorite directors. The noir feel of his 2005 debut Brick is interwoven in Looper, and the rapid-fire dialogue and hilarious deliveries of sophomore effort The Brothers Bloom (2009) also make appearances, but the most admirable thing about Johnson is that he consistently challenges himself with new material. You never quite know what to expect of him; his signature masterful sound design (the juxtaposition between quiet and loud in this film are almost more than you’ll be able to take at times, such is the tension they usher), and visionary camerawork (pans, focus pulls and tilts) are justly accounted for in Looper, but the tone is far more subdued and serious than Bloom, and its consequences are decidedly more adult and far-reaching than those of Brick. Not to mention that Looper is a sci-fi film with just enough world portrayed to create a bleak and believable atmosphere in which the characters develop. Perhaps most genius is that Johnson makes the time-travel and futuristic elements secondary, in support of a character-driven film. That is restraint and emotional intelligence foreign to many directors.
It’s also great to see Johnson re-teaming with Gordon-Levitt after Brick. Director and actor have grown in the past seven years, and that maturity resonates in every frame of Looper. Despite that you’ve always felt Johnson deserves to be a household name, with this film he’s officially arrived. And Gordon-Levitt’s performance is astounding; his inflections, mannerisms, facial expressions (even under layers of prosthetics) are uncannily Willis-like. It could’ve been a disaster for someone less intuitive and skilled — having a director write a role for him, then having an actor who looks and speaks nothing like him cast to play his older self. Instead, Gordon-Levitt clearly studied Willis (even admitting to having had Willis read his lines into a recorder so he could perfect their delivery), and Kazuhiro Tsuji’s prosthetics strike the perfect balance between transformative and natural. And don’t get me started on Willis, who delivers one-liners, sparks of intensely physical action and emotional wallops with a quiet sensibility that singe you like a slow burn. He’s really excellent in this; Johnson has given him a role where he’s able to exercise both style and substance, and he takes full advantage.
As with Johnson’s other films, the supporting cast clocks an equally noteworthy turn. Emily Blunt as Sara, a mysterious woman Joe meets while in pursuit of his older self, is as convincing laying into a piece of wood with an ax as she is smoking an imaginary cigarette. Like so many of the other characters, Sara has ghosts, and exorcizes them within the stunning visual medium — that play between hard and soft — that Johnson has lain before her.
Daniels is so good in his few scenes — so menacing, so charismatic — that Johnson need only set a hammer next to him on a desk to send shivers up your spine. Segan is pretty terrifying as well, if for very different reasons: his lack of anger management, his poor gun skills, his obsession with proving his worth to Abe. He looks a bit like a young Denis Leary, which I suppose inadvertently aids some of the inherent comedy that his bumbling reign of terror ushers.
Bottom line, Katie: I’m closing our loop for a reason: Looper is one of the best films you’ll see this year. It’s visionary, it’s exciting, it’s thoughtful. Quit fretting about the violence; it’s necessary in order to blur the lines between “bad” and “good” guys, leaving only humans in that smudgy wake — some looking to survive, some to thrive, some simply questioning the nature of it all. It’s one of those rare films that feels set in the future for a reason, not only to be original, daring and interesting (which it is, in spades), but also to read as something of a cautionary tale. Breathe in, breathe out, dump your preconceived notions of what the film is about and simply let Looper amaze you.
Looper opens Friday nationwide.