Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Thirty-Two

32 looper

#32 — Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012)

Violence begets violence. In the longstanding cinematic algebra that posits the swinging of fists and the pulling of triggers as the readiest and surest solutions to all manner of problems — such as the narrative fixes on screen and the perceived necessity of speeding the pulses of assembled moviegoers — it is common to elide the true moral ramifications of inflicting harm on another human being. Snuffing the life out of someone is just another task for the hero on the way to eventual closing-act triumph, with perhaps a punny wisecrack to accompany the act of murder. Like many other action films that try to honestly grapple with the insidious repercussions of violent acts, Rian Johnson’s Looper isn’t without its moments of bang-bang sensationalism. It wants to have its cake and empty several rounds into it, too. Better than most, though, it wears the weight of its bruising clamor.

The title refers to hired killers whose targets are sent to them from the future, a time-travel workaround to hide the mortal crime. The last person killed under the contract is their future self. But time travel is tricky, and when a looper named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) initially fumbles the job of an older fellow with a familiar face (Bruce Willis), it sets off a series of events that eventually sets Joe upon a different mission, trying to prevent a future where a vicious, super-powered person bent on revenge is racking up a sizable body count.

Johnson’s screenplay is appropriately, wonderfully dizzying, blithely picking and choosing when it opts to go for hard science fiction and when it wants to shrug off the impossible paradoxes that immediately emerge when time travel drives a plot. Looper is energized by its filmmaker’s penchant for expertly adhering to trope-driven expectations only to heave the whole apparatus to the other side of a funhouse looking glass. He freely exposes the balderdash of his tricky narrative while simultaneously reveling in the sheer fun of it. Importantly, he never slumps to easy mockery, as best evidences by the firmly committed performances of the cast, especially Gordon-Levitt and, as a fierce, worn-down woman defending her rural homestead, Emily Blunt.

Working with his regular cinematographer, Steve Yedlin, Johnson makes Looper into a film of surprisingly tender artistry. The director practically caresses the textures in the film, whether the scraped squalor of the city or the sun-scorched farmland. The approach lends further veracity to the fantastical store because the world feels lived in. This is a place and time where people exist, where they make choices basic on an incomplete understanding of the circumstances before there. The choices aren’t easy or certain, but they must be made decisively. Because maybe if the choices are made correctly — with a thought to the harm they will exact or prevent — then maybe, just maybe, a better future can be forged.

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