Rian Johnson’s “Looper,” a Genres-Piece with Substance

Rian Johnson is the writer-director behind Brick (2005) and The Brothers Bloom (2008).  Brick is a tightly-plotted highschool film noir, which shows genius in its witty dialogue, dramatic characterization, and intriguing staging.  Johnson gives the conventions of the two genres a vividness to be the envy of any film in either genre, blending them perfectly without confusion.

The Brothers Bloom “draws” the viewer “on” a bit more, rather like the con-men–two brothers by the name of Bloom–whom the film is about.  But just as the perfect con, according to the one brother, is the con from which both parties walk away with what they want, so at the end the viewer walks away from the film not unsatisfied.

His latest, Looper, is one of my most anticipated films of the year.  Within the next hundred years, time travel is invented, but banned because of the trauma that it may cause to the timeline, and used only by large crime organizations.  Hitmen in the present called “loopers” shoot the victims sent to them from the future and dispose of the bodies.  Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one such looper.  But the crime organizations do not want any loose ends, and they send their loopers’ future selves, like old Joe (Bruce Willis) to the past to “close their loop.”

Looper blends more genres than Brick and says more about the viewer than The Brothers Bloom.  In any time, the viewer may be treated to a scene of noir, science fiction, crime, horror, action, drama, or western.  The changes from one genre to another do not jar the viewer, as they might in a spoof comedy (and desirably so), like Weird Al’s cult classic, UHF (1989), which I watched recently with some friends.  The changes are suited to the theme of the given scene according to the one plot running throughout the film.

On top of the intriguing premise, Johnson gives the audience a lot to be pleased at.  He assembles a great cast; writes a tight plot with inventive concepts, smart dialogue, and motivated characters; shows good choices in music cues; and displays some truly beautiful camerawork.

All of the cast members turn in fine performances, from the veteran and top-billed talent (Bruce Willis, JGL, Emily Blunt) to lesser-known character actors (Paul Dano, Noah Segan) down to a certain stupendous child actor, (Pierce Gagnon).

One might not find oneself humming the tunes when leaving the theater, but the music augments what occurs on-screen without drawing attention to itself.  Credit goes to Nathan Johnson, the film’s composer, and to Steve Yedlin, Johnson’s DP, who shoots wide scenes with splendor, close scenes with personality, and action scenes with excitement and clarity.

I will not say much about the special effects, so as not to affect viewers’ expectations, but they were appropriately spectacular when they should be spectacular and matter-of-fact when they should be matter-of-fact.

Some mention should be made about Sharen Davis’ costuming, too.  At one point, Jeff Daniels’ character tells Joe that the movies that Joe imitates are just imitating other movies.  “Do something new,” he says.  Hearing other comments made about fashion, too, the viewer cannot understand the film as thoroughly as Johnson wrote it without understanding what the costumes mean (1) for the characters in the world of the film, (2) for Looper in the world of films, and (3) for the viewers of Looper and other films in our world.  But that three-part understanding is elliptical to a central understanding of the film.

Do not read the following before viewing the film.

The film’s title is Looper, and the central figure of the film is that of a loop.  The film is rife with loops: (1) The timeline of the shared world forms a loop.  (2) The lives of individual hitmen loop around so that they meet their older selves.  (3) The crimes that one generation inflicts on the next are inflicted by that second generation on a third.  (3) The good or the harm that one character does to another are so similar to what a third does to a fourth that they form a conceptual loop in the viewer’s mind as he or she tries to understand the film.

The central character of the film, however, is a young man who is supposed to close his loop but, in the words of the film, “lets it run.”  A loop, then, either closes or runs, but one cannot say that closing a loop is good or bad, nor that letting it run is good or bad, so long as these are understood abstractly.  Concretely, there is more than one sort of killing: killing of the body and killing of the soul.  Also, there is killing of the killing soul.

Joe tells Cid that his drug-using mother sold him to some men.  When Joe aged up, he killed those men and used drugs himself.  Old Joe meets a woman who loves him and cleans him from his drug use, and he marries her and leaves his life of killing.  But men from his old life catch up with him and kill his wife, but then he succeeds in killing them, and he sends himself back in time to kill the Rainmaker and prevent the death of his wife.  In the middle of that, young Joe meets Sara, Cid’s mother, who left him to be raised by her sister when he was very young but who will not abandon him now that her sister has died, even though Cid believes that Sara is a liar and not his real mother.  When Old Joe is about to shoot at Cid and Sara, young Joe is out of range to shoot him but turns his gun on himself.

One sort of killing results in the death of the body.  The other results in the death of the soul  Here, I have to import words that the film does not use in order to signify things that the film definitely depicts.  Death of the body is most often caused by guns.  Death of the soul is caused by death of the body or abandonment.  Joe is set on a path of killing others’ bodies by the death of something in him that is not his body.  But there is more to killing on his path than that.  When he meets his older self, Old Joe disparages the sort of “life” that he is living: a killer, a junkie, and self-absorbed. Young Joe has been killing himself, in an other-than-bodily way, even before he meets Old Joe.  Old Joe’s wife brings him back to life: he says that she poured her love into him and he took it like a sponge.

Decades before closing his loop in a bodily way, then, he is set on that path of closing his loop in a non-bodily way.  But Joe does not cognizant of this until his older self confronts him.  That is: young Joe has been closing his loop by killing his soul and letting his loop run, not confronting himself, by not turning from his life of drugs, killing, and self-absorption.  He lets the killer who is himself get away from him.  Neither does he turn from that life until he, under the influence of the relationships that he forms with Sara and Cid, turns the gun on himself.  He kills the killer, his contemporary self (not Old Joe), and at the same time he kills his body.  This bodily death causes Old Joe to vanish and lets Cid’s loop run so that he, with Sara’s love, might not become the Rainmaker.

The Brothers Bloom does not say nearly so much about the viewer, whose loops do not just close and run in our world but also close and run in the world of the films that he or she views.

Do not read the preceding before viewing the film.

In Looper, Johnson has not only imitated movies of other genres or blended genres.  I am not aware of anyone who has blended so many genres before, nor these specific ones, nor in this specific way.  Johnson has also “done something new”: like a master of his craft, he has also developed a story element into that which unifies story across its layers of depth–with a unique setting and original characters and other suitable elements–and thereby given his genres-piece substance.

Note: Looper contains one scene (and one other brief shot) of a topless woman and several scenes of drug use and disturbing violence.

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