Rian Johnson’s Looper is probably responsible for the strangest five-star review I’ve ever written. Here’s the thing — I think the film is frequently brilliant and never less than excellent. It’s exciting, intelligent, well-crafted and easily the best science fiction movie I’ve seen since Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007). Looked at in that light, there’s nothing strange about giving it the full five. Similarly, it’s a film I haven’t stopped thinking about since I saw it. I should note that I don’t mean that in the sense of online discourses about the logistics of time travel — an area of argument the film itself wisely refuses to get into. No, this is more in the sense of being haunted by its emotional resonance and craftsmanship. All these things are in the film’s favor. So where is any of this strange? That’s easy. It’s a five-star movie that I am nonetheless somewhat disappointed by. Let’s put it this way: If you lined up Johnson’s three features — Brick (2006), The Brothers Bloom (2009), and this — and asked me to pick one to watch, Looper would be my last choice. (And that’s even recognizing that Looper is better made than Brick.)
Even granting that what we’re talking about is essentially splitting hairs over degrees of superlatives, I can’t shake the sense that Looper is a step — however intelligent a step — away from the quirky personal vision of Johnson’s first two films and toward the realm of mainstream Hollywood moviemaking. It’s by no means a “sellout,” but comparatively speaking, this is a much more “normal” movie. The personal touches and concerns are in there, but they’re less pronounced. I can certainly draw a line between the lonely, rather bleak country roads at the end of this film and those at the end of The Brothers Bloom, for example. The fact that the headquarters of the Looper organization is in a nightclub named after the cafe in Casablanca (La Belle Aurore) offers a touch of nostalgia for more graceful past eras — as does Joe’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) affectation for wearing a necktie. The same is true of the ersatz-noir narration. These things — along with its occasional outcroppings of somewhat grisly humor — are pure Rian Johnson. And the more I think about them and recognize others, the more I like Looper.
I realize I’ve gone a good way without saying all that much about Looper on its own merits apart from Johnson’s larger body of work. That’s not entirely accidental, because the less you know about the movie and its undeniably high concept premise, the better off I think you’ll be. Let’s just say that it’s set in the future — well, two futures actually — where the gangsters of the more distant future dispose of people by sending them back in time to be assassinated and disposed of by hired killers called Loopers. The catch to all this is that one day a Looper’s future self will be sent back to be assassinated by his earlier self. The main story involves what happens when Joe fails to kill his older self (Bruce Willis). Beyond that, I’m not saying anything. If that idea and the complexities it suggests (and there are even more complexities it doesn’t begin to) appeal to you, then you should see the film and let it fill in the rest.
I will say that the film is beautifully crafted, acted and written. Gordon-Levitt is wholly convincing as the younger Bruce Willis — and Willis reminds us that he actually can act if he wants to (or maybe only if the material is good enough to make him bother). Emily Blunt gives one of her best performances here — totally banishing memories of The Five-Year Engagement earlier this year. But in many ways, the performance that most intrigued me came from Jeff Daniels as the enigmatic mob boss from the future. Actually, there’s not a bad performance in the film — and no real false steps of any kind. That I found it less compelling than Johnson’s previous films may simply show my preference for a different type of movie — and in no way does it keep this from being a 2012 must-see. Rated R for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug content.