Sunday, May 12, 2013

Looper (Endgame Entertainment, DMG Entertainment, FilmDistrict, TriStar, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Looper, a 2012 sci-fi film written and directed by Rian Johnson — whose first feature, Brick (2005), I’d quite liked, so both Charles and I were looking forward to this one. It was a major disappointment, a surprisingly dull sci-fi thriller set in Kansas in the year 2044. As the narrator and central character, Joe (Brick star Joseph Gordon-Levitt), economically explains to us at the start, time travel hasn’t been invented in 2044 but by 2074, 30 years into the future, it has been. Unfortunately, because of the obvious dangers involved in having people rooting around the past and changing things in the future, it was outlawed almost as soon as it was invented, so today the only people doing time travel are the criminal syndicates which essentially govern the U.S. (and, one gets the impression, the world — Rian Johnson isn’t especially interested in backstory but the future in this movie is a typical modern-day dystopian one in which civilization has essentially broken down, technological development has stopped, and the law of the jungle rules again). In order to eliminate their enemies without a trace, they send their victims back 30 years, where they are killed, and their bodies incinerated, by “Loopers” — hired contract killers who off them and then dump their bodies down a shaft to a waiting fire, which consumes them. Thus, to the world of 2074, these people just disappear and the syndicates who ordered their murders don’t have to be worried about any tell-tale physical evidence linking them to the killings (though just what outside authority they’d have to worry about anyway is one of the many aspects of Johnson’s story that remains ambiguous).

The catch in being a Looper is that eventually the syndicate is going to decide to eliminate you, so they send back your 30-years-older incarnation from 2074 and you’re supposed to shoot yourself, then live out the rest of your life on the gold pieces you’ve been paid, one for each previous hit (the gold bars in the film are engraved with Chinese symbols — courtesy of a weird production deal Johnson’s producers cut with the Chinese government to film a flashback scene in Shanghai so the movie would be considered a Chinese film, entitled to preferential distribution in China), until you reach the end of the “loop” — the time you were sent back 30 years so you could kill yourself. The plan starts to go awry when one Looper, Seth (Paul Dano, too fine an actor to be wasted in so small a part), fails to kill his older incarnation when he’s supposed to do so and is therefore marked for death himself. Joe tries to hide him out, and later when Joe’s own older incarnation (Bruce Willis) is sent back he can’t kill him, either. From a confrontation scene at a local café where the 2044 version of Joe is a regular (and where he practices French to a long-suffering waitress, Beatrix [Tracie Thoms], even though his older version says he’d be better off learning Mandarin instead — given China’s increasing importance to the world economy, he probably would be, too), young Joe learns from old Joe that the world of 2074 has been taken over by a mysterious man called the “Rainmaker” who’s sending all the Loopers back to be executed by their younger selves: he’s also managed to get the largest five cities remaining in the U.S. under his control, and he somehow was able to do that entirely on his own without any other people in his gang.

Just how that happened isn’t explained until the end of the film — though Johnson is a good enough screenwriter, with a well-developed enough knowledge of classic Hollywood and its strategies, to have “planted” a clue. It seems that some people in this dystopian future have developed what’s called the “TK Mutation,” an ability to practice telekinesis which whatever authorities still existed (at times in Johnson’s story the U.S. of 2044 seems to have a functioning government, at other times it doesn’t) were hoping would lead to the development of real-life super-heroes. Unfortunately, as far as anybody knew, the telekinesis properties of the TK mutants were so limited that the mutation basically turned into a gimmick horny TK straight guys used to pick up women: they would cause quarters to float in mid-air about six inches above their hands and hope this impressed their targets enough so they’d get laid. Young Joe ends up hiding out on a farm owned by a butch woman named Sara (Emily Blunt) who’s by far the most interesting character in the dramatis personae (and Blunt plays her with an authority that eludes most of the males in the cast). We meet her carrying a long gun and threatening to shoot Joe, saying she’s already shot and killed three vagrants trying to trespass on her property — the impression we get is that without much of a functioning economy in this dystopian nightmare of a future, there are a lot of vagrants running around and anybody who does own property is going to have to defend it with firearms (though if there isn’t an economy and a manufacturing infrastructure, where are they getting the bullets from?) — though eventually young Joe talks her into hiding him out. She has a son named Cid (Pierce Gagnon) — that’s how the first name is spelled in the cast list on the film’s page — whose age is variously described as five or 10 (he looked about 8 to me; Pierce Gagnon’s page doesn’t mention his real age but his first credit was in 2010) and who may be her natural child or who may be her late sister’s child. When Cid was born Sara was leading a dissolute life full of drugs and casual sex (meaning she has no idea who Cid’s father was) and she placed the baby with her sister, who raised him until she was murdered, at least according to the version of Cid’s origins we’re apparently supposed to believe — though Cid is convinced that the sister was his real mother and it’s Sara who’s just a foster parent.

With both Joes alive and running around the world of 2044, the Rainmaker back in 2074 organizes a hit squad led by Abe (Jeff Daniels) to go back to 2044 and take them both out, while the old Joe has hatched a plot of his own: now that he’s back in 2044 he wants to find the Rainmaker and eliminate him while he’s still a child so he never lives to take power and condemn all the Loopers to death by their own hands. Old Joe has traced three children who may become the Rainmaker when (if) they grow up, and Cid is one of them; in a spectacular action scene old Joe takes out Abe’s entire hit squad — both Charles and I said at that point, “Now it looks like a Bruce Willis movie!” — and the climax occurs at Sara’s farm, where it turns out [spoiler alert!] that Cid has the super-version of the TK mutation that was being hoped for way back when in that other plot strand. The film turns into Carrie meets The Omen as Cid vanquishes the remaining people who are trying to kill him by raising great waves of soil and agricultural debris — and old Joe tries to shoot Cid but Sara steps in front of him and takes the bullet himself. Then we learn that the last minute or so is a precognition of events in the mind of young Joe, who decides to short-circuit the future by shooting himself, thereby making old Joe disappear (reminding us of the movie The Sixth Sense, another Bruce Willis film in which the famous surprise gimmick was that Willis’s character had died at the beginning and thereafter existed only in the mind of the kid played by Haley Joel Osment, who “saw dead people”) and allowing Sara and Cid to get away, hopefully avoiding subjecting Cid to the bitter traumas that send his mind off the rails and turned him into the Rainmaker. (Yeah, right.) It seemed odd that not long after we had watched Alfred Hitchcock’s The Manxman — another movie in which a powerful director’s talents were wasted on a formulaic and rather silly story — we’d be watching another movie in which a powerful director’s talents were wasted on a formulaic and more than a bit silly story, though in this case (as I’m fond of saying whenever I’m disappointed by a film in which the writer and director were the same person), the director was also the writer and therefore had no one to blame but himself.

Looper has some of the characteristics that made me like Brick so much — including the love of picturesque incomprehensibility (Looper makes me even more convinced than Brick did that Blue Sunshine and Repo Man are Rian Johnson’s all-time favorite films!) and references to old movies that for once add richness to the tale instead of calling attention to the writer-director’s cleverness (the club at which the Loopers watch strippers and do a drug that’s administered as eyedrops is called La Belle Aurore — also the name of the nightclub Humphrey Bogart’s character was running in Paris in the flashback sequence of Casablanca, which he fled with his piano player Sam [Dooley Wilson] before waiting in vain for his girlfriend, Ingrid Bergman, to meet him at the train leaving the Nazi-occupied city — and Emily Blunt’s character is clearly inspired by Sally Field’s role in Places in the Heart), as well as the sexual role reversal (in one scene Sara summons young Joe with the alarm system — two toy frogs that croak when one of their bodies is pressed — they’ve rigged up in case they’re in danger, only she calls him not because she’s in danger but because she’s horny and wants him to fuck her) — but all too much of it is dull and routine. Johnson’s love of powerful visuals and his disinclination to make his movie make sense combine to produce an impressively atmospheric movie but also a surprisingly staid one; for all the surprises (especially at the end) a lot of the sequences are awfully predictable, and as much as I like Johnson’s style the impression I get from Looper is perhaps it’s time for him to try directing a movie based on a script he hasn’t written. It also doesn’t help that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was plastered with prosthetic makeup in a vain attempt to make him look more like the young Bruce Willis; he was a marvelously expressive actor in Brick (even though the plot of Brick, even more than that of Looper, required him to do little more than suffer) but here he seems trying to fight his way through all the rubber on his face to communicate any emotions at all.

What’s most interesting about Looper is less its aesthetic quality as a movie than its status as a window into the Zeitgeist: it’s one more story of the future that basically describes it as a sinister, brutal place, one more indication that Americans have at least unconsciously accepted that things aren’t going to get any better in this country and the future is going to be very much like the present, only more so: an ever-shrinking gang of ultra-rich people at the top (though we never see any physical evidence of their existence) lording it over an ever more impoverished mass population (if there were an Occupy movement in Looper’s version of 2044 its slogan would probably be, “We Are the 99.9 Percent”), and the ever more impoverished masses basically accepting the fact that they’re on their own, no government or social movement is going to save them, and all they have to protect themselves against predators both above and below them on the socioeconomic scale is their grit, determination and (especially) guns. It’s an odd vision of the future for a country historically known for its optimism, though it’s congenial both to the Left and the Right — you can read it as the rich oppressing everyone else or as the final confirmation of the radical-Right message that everyone’s on their own and they can’t afford to trust anybody, especially people below them with their hands out — and it’s one that seems to dominate popular entertainment these days, especially when popular entertainment bothers to consider what the future will be like at all. The Hunger Games was a much better movie than Looper (and its novel was even better than the film!) but it and Wall-E come from the same place — as does Oblivion, Tom Cruise’s new movie (and a career boost for him after the deserved flop of his Jack Reacher film, for which Christopher Meloni would have been perfect and Cruise was totally miscast): a dank, depressing, despairing vision of the future that rules out both belief in and support of the status quo and any hope that it could ever get any better or that any movements for change have any hope of improving things at all.