Looper’s Ethical AssassinJuly 19, 2021 By Go Back
Rian Johnson burst onto the festival scene with the slightly pretentious but well-received high school-noir Brick in 2005 and followed up in 2008 with the grifter/manic pixie caper The Brothers Bloom, showing his knack for adapting styles from bygone eras to modern-day. Johnson would then direct Star Wars: The Last Jedi in 2017 and 2019’s smash hit Knives Out. Before those films, he would make waves in 2012 with Looper, his third feature film. Blending sci-fi, film noir and family drama, he wrote and directed an intriguing story of a time-travelling assassin and a little boy with extraordinary powers.
It’s 2044, and time travel hasn’t been invented yet, but when it does, 30 years from then, it will be illegal, used by only the worst of the worst criminals. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an assassin for these future mobsters, called a “looper.” He waits for his targets to be sent back in time, and when they arrive in the blink of an eye, Joe shoots the doomed and hooded time jumper and collects the silver strapped to their freshly dispatched body. It’s a job where you don’t ask questions. You just wait, shoot and collect your silver bars. When it’s time to retire, you close your loop by killing your future self and collect your generous and final payment.
Joe lives life on the edge, with drugs, alcohol, seeing his favourite showgirl Suzie (Piper Perabo), and biding time with his fellow assassins. They are under the watchful eye of Abe (Jeff Daniels), the mob boss sent back from the future to oversee operations. Seth (Paul Dano), Joe’s buddy, comes to him in a panic one night because his scheduled kill turns out to be his older self. Old Seth tells of a new boss in the future, The Rainmaker, who is closing loops and wreaking havoc. Joe makes a judgment call that doesn’t bode well with Abe, and in an unexpected turn of fate, it’s his turn to close his loop. The appearance of Old Joe (Bruce Willis) rocks his world in a plot to save lives and love before The Rainmaker can become the monster he is in the future.
Looper has to look to the past to save the future. Using time travel as a backdrop, Johnson tells a story about ensuring the fate of a little boy doesn’t change future lives; focusing on characters, their abilities, and the sacrifice Joe has to make to save the world instead of the minutiae of time travel. The saying about being older and wiser plays a big part in Looper too. Not only does Johnson show how his style and writing matured, but he poses that age-old question of what you would tell your younger self, taking it up one thousand notches to create a high-stakes sci-fi drama.
Old Joe has rejected the way he used to live, and it’s up to him to let his renegade younger self know what dangers lie ahead if he doesn’t get on board with the plan. These details of what Joe has at stake are essential for the audience to be invested. It also puts morality center-stage: would you kill a person as a child if you knew he would grow up to be evil? Joe starts as an amoral character trying to get by, but he has a spark of goodness. He’s like that old gumshoe trope that falls for the pure-at-heart woman; ultimately doomed but commits to something that makes his life worthwhile.
In many interviews, Johnson mentions that he nursed Looper’s story over several years until he and long-time friend Gordon-Levitt were able to get the feature film made. The role of Joe was written for Gordon-Levitt, who Johnson has said is good at transformation within his roles. I’d have to agree, watching this versatile actor grow on TV and film, his most memorable roles being an alien on 3rd Rock from the Sun, starring in teen comedies and dramas, and playing villains, con artists and famous sidekicks in action films. There’s no better example of his range than when Gordon-Levitt, with the help of a 3-hour prosthetic makeup by Kazuhiro Tsuji (knnow for his work on Planet of the Apes and The Darkest Hour), becomes a younger version of Willis physically, and through his talent a younger version of Willis’s portrayal of Old Joe. Under that makeup, Gordon-Levitt is a marvel. His mimicry of Willis is key in making the role believable, down to Willis’s signature smirk. It’s a mind-bender just like time travel is, but they both manage to meld the character’s quirks and personality seamlessly. The diner scene masterfully shows the intense portrayals of both Joes, surprising even the seemingly unflinching iconic action star when Gordon-Levitt captures his trademark swagger.
Emily Blunt and Pierce Gagnon are equally good as Sara and Cid, enhancing the nature versus nurture argument with solid performances and tons of charm. Honourable mention goes to the more-bark-than-bite bad guy Kid Blue. The bumbling villain played by another long-time collaborator of Johnson’s, Noah Segan, leaves you wanting him to win at least one of his battles. His feigned tough guy exterior covers his desperate need to please Abe, made extra crunchy and menacing with Daniels’ portrayal. Kid Blue ultimately spirals from one mistake to another, never really cutting it as a reputable henchman.
Along with the practical makeup, Johnson opted for 35 mm film instead of digital, and the stunts and special effects involved minimal digital manipulation, for instance, using old-school fishing wire to make objects float for the telekinetic powers people have in the future. Johnson also wanted a grounded world in the near future to make it a relatable landscape for the audience. The production design team created sets believable for a dystopian future in 2044, retrofitting cars with solar panels and staging desolate tent cities, conveying the need for escapism with chemicals to alter your mind and find something outside the cruel reality of the mean city streets.
With his attention to detail and the skill of the cast and crew, Looper is standalone in Johnson’s homage resume. It debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, made over $20,000,000 on opening weekend and over $170,000,000 worldwide. On IMDb, it ranked as #15 for 2012’s top films and made only a couple of “Best of 2012” lists with Spiderman, Batman (The Dark Knight Rises in which Gordon-Levitt also appears), James Bond, and many a drama taking centre stage. This forward-looking film with an iconic action star and a chameleon-skilled actor made my “Best of” list, so enjoy this unique take on sacrifice, ethics and the future this month on Hollywood Suite.