There’s no getting around it: I’m a sucker for the films of Rian Johnson. I loved his debut feature and his sophomore effort, sometimes feeling like an isolated supporter of the latter. There’s a crispness to his writing and an unassuming ingenuity to the visuals he shapes. I admire the way he comes at stories that seem familiar but injects them with a jubilant celebration of all the possibilities of storytelling, from narrative twists and turns to thematic layering. His third film, Looper, could be fairly accused of lifting elements from all sorts of science fiction efforts and time travel sagas that have come before, and yet it feels superlatively fresh, resounding with the jolt of discovery. Whatever may be well-worn in the details becomes strikingly new in the execution, due in part to the great performances Johnson draws from his cast, especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt and, in a couple of wonderful cameos, Jeff Daniels and Garret Dillahunt.
If the pieces of Looper are appealing, it’s the overarching concepts of the film that make it haunting. In developing a story about assassins whose targets are cast back in time, eventually closing the circle by finishing off their older selves, Johnson has made a film that’s less about the whiz-bang components and more about the cyclical nature of violence. Physical assaults beget more and greater infractions, until people and indeed whole societies are caught up in bloody echoes of retribution that carry across generations. Johnson confronts the agonizing futility of it all, without moralizing or even abdicating his creative right to deploy phenomenal action set pieces. He successfully threads the same needle James Cameron jabbed at over twenty years earlier with the sensationally violent anti-violence treatise Terminator 2: Judgement Day, avoiding the creeping sense of hypocrisy that left the predecessor a little wobbly. Looper is full of fine surprises, but none more satisfying than the satisfying way Johnson’s ambitions snap firmly into place.
So yes, I’m in thrall to Johnson’s filmmaking. Given the box office success of Looper and the modest but meaningful awards attention it’s generated at the end of the year, including a Writers Guild of America nomination for Johnson’s smart, amazing script, I’m beginning to have company.