With influences ranging from Scanners to The Terminator, Rian Johnson’s new film Looper nonetheless succeeds in being highly original and might best be described as a time travel western or sci-fi gangster film.  Crime organizations of the 2070s are in the habit of disposing of unwanted people by sending them back in time to be executed by “loopers” in the 2040s.  Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one such looper working in Kansas and finds himself in a terrible predicament when faced with the option of either assassinating his future self (Bruce Willis) or disobeying his boss (Jeff Daniels) by letting himself run free.  Complicating matters still further is the intention of the older Joe to assassinate a young boy, Cid (Pierce Gagnon), who will grow up to be the Rainmaker, the mass-murdering mutant mega-crimelord who wants Joe and all the other loopers erased.  The boy’s mother (Emily Blunt) naturally tries to prevent this from happening and wonders if young Joe, who shows up on her farm, is someone she can possibly trust.

Futuristic films rarely instil hope, and Looper‘s predictions for human society fit nicely into this tradition.  Looper keeps its forecasts relatively modest by movie standards, with a few technologies and other developments having changed dramatically, while other aspects of society – not to mention all of humanity’s failings – remain remarkably the same.  10% of humans do manifest a mild telekinetic mutation, however, which plays into the Rainmaker origin story.  The Great Recession appears to have settled into an ongoing American decline, with systemic unemployment creating vagrant gangs and making people with money intolerant of the poor.  China is the ascendant power, and with the dollar apparently having lost all value, gold, silver, and yuan are the preferred forms of payment.  Joe is planning to emigrate after saving enough money, and is learning French toward that end, but his boss, who has lived in the future, advises him to forgo France for China.

With a plot revolving around strategic child murder, Looper is strong stuff, not to be dismissed as fantastic escapism, and is arguably a meditation on the ethics of abortion.  The older and presumably wiser Joe wants Cid dead to save his own and his wife’s future life, while young Joe, a junkie and whoring materialist, is divided by his loyalty to himself and to his boss, his new knowledge of potentially preventable future horrors, and his revulsion at what he sees himself attempting to do to correct the situation.  If time travel allowed Abraham Lincoln, Lenin, or Hitler to be located and neutralized as children, would the future outcome of the action justify their preemptive murders?  This is the problem Looper addresses.

The story can be disorienting, and Looper may not make complete sense even according to its own logic, but the ideas are important, the vision compelling, the direction certain, and the acting almost uniformly accomplished and affecting.  Bruce Willis, after appearing in the excellent Twelve Monkeys, now has two very memorable time travel films to his credit, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt can add one more to his recent string of high-profile roles in action winners.  Pierce Gagnon turns in a remarkably intimidating child performance as the future Rainmaker, and writer-director Rian Johnson identifies himself as a talent to watch in the years to come, with Looper easily earning 5 of 5 possible future star outcomes.

Ideological Content Analysis indicates that Looper is:

6. Anti-drug.  A psychedelic eye drop trip almost results in a young boy being run over.  Joe is an addict and more than once is depicted going through withdrawal sickness.  The film is cigarette-ambivalent, however.  In one scene, Emily Blunt sits on her porch and mimes the smoking of a cigarette, as if she’s given it up and misses the naughty ritual.  While cigarettes appear to be equated with hypodermic needles and eyedrops as an addiction, smoking is still, in the classic Hollywood tradition, also the mandatory film noir post-coitus convention.

5. Pro-miscegenation.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s flirtations with a black waitress are punctuated by lurid shots of cream billowing in his cup of coffee.  He leers lasciviously at Chinese women before marrying one of them as Bruce Willis.

4. Gun-ambivalent.  One particular murder is appalling, but gunplay can be horrific or thrilling depending upon the target.  In one montage of mob hits, machine gun fire actually provides the percussion to the accompanying music.

3. Arguably anti-capitalist and egalitarian.  The silver currency evokes the Judas story, with a montage alternating mob executions with shots of silver bricks being neatly stacked, seemingly equating the profit motive with treachery and murder.  The lives of the poor are increasingly worthless as income inequality has broadened.

2. Feminist/pro-slut.  Emily Blunt’s character is a single mother who also manages to run a farm by herself.  Her telekinetic ability is stronger than that of the men who have used that tactic to try to impress her, and she knows how to handle herself with a shotgun and even doctor a man after she’s shot him.  Who needs some presumptuous penis mucking up her life to be a good, protective, and affectionate mother?

1. Pro-life/pro-bastard.  Looper can leave the viewer in no doubt as to its attitude toward innocent human life.  Only after they grow up and join criminal organizations do humans become entertaining machine gun target galleries.

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