Since 2005, there have been three films that, to me, are always linked as extraordinary debuts from young American directors to watch in the future: Thank You for Smoking (Jason Reitman, USA 2005), (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, USA 2009), and, best of all, Brick (Rian Johnson, USA 2005). These were all fantastic films that showed remarkable cohesiveness and visual imagination and were so inventive that the directors all seemed obviously destined for great futures. (Interesting aside: Webb and Johnson both made their debuts starring the great Joseph Gordon-Levitt.)
Reitman followed his debut up with the incredibly commercially successful but artistically lackluster Juno (USA 2007), the acclaimed Up in the Air (USA 2009), and finally the complete failure Young Adult (USA 2011). I have been pretty disappointed in Reitman, but he has been able to find some success. Webb, who is a bit of a different case from the other two because he was a seasoned music video director when his debut appeared and he did not write his own screenplay, followed up by helming the big-budget failure The Amazing Spider-Man (USA 2012), which looked like a music video director instead of a promising filmmaker made it. Obviously, I’m disappointed in Webb.
Rian Johnson, meanwhile, followed up his debut with the excellent The Brothers Bloom (USA 2008) and made a brief foray into television by directing one of the best episodes of Breaking Bad, “Fly,” finally returning with his third feature film here. Johnson is the only one of those promising directors who seems to be delivering on that promise, and he hasn’t stopped delivering with his latest.
Looper is a “science fiction” thriller set in a noirish near-future that would make Philip K. Dick jealous. The film’s premise is that criminal organizations in the film’s future (ca. 2074) hire people in the film’s present (2044), the title loopers, to dispose of bodies that they send back in time, it being far easier to dispose of someone in 2044 than 2074, but there is a catch to the job: eventually, the person they send back for you will be your future self, so that you can’t talk. Joe is one such Looper, and when his future self comes back, of course problems arise.
This is the rare well-thought-out futuristic film. It’s a testament to the amount of work and care put into the time-traveling logic that one of the biggest logical gaps in the film is really how on earth someone as good looking as Joseph Gordon-Levitt ages into Bruce Willis. There is also a bit of a hole in the question of why the criminals send someone back alive instead of killing them and sending back the body, but it’s not a big enough hole to take away from the film.
The twisting, turning narrative is told with brilliant economy and just enough confusing jump-cutting by Johnson and editor Bob Ducsay to keep the audience on its feet, as befits a time-traveling thriller. Johnson has a ton of story to fit into a film’s time frame, so he gives the audience a ton of information in a few excellent montage sequences, a brilliant way of allowing the film’s primary story to remain in front and yet get all of the information needed to the audience. Future Joe’s entire life story is summed up in just a few minutes of screen time and yet feels fully told, informing us of everything we need for the final act. Few directors would even attempt such a maneuver for fear of losing the audience, but Johnson not only uses it there but uses it a number of times, trusting his audience to follow along and adding to the twisting time-traveling narrative. Ducsay also proves up to the task of creating these montages, a true editing feat.
Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin enhance everything by shooting the entire film with a cold, very dark, very noir style. They eschew special effects and CGI almost completely, avoiding the trap that felled Webb’s big-budget debut. Instead, They shoots the entire film in a foreboding darkness with strategic high-contrast lighting, utilizing a cool color palate that doesn’t include any of the oranges of most modern filmmaking. It’s not dissimilar from what the pair did with Brick, and in both cases it suits the story perfectly. Johnson’s mastery of the visual and his incredible sense of rhythm keep this film on the rails completely, even as a bizarre narrative threatens to throw it off course.
The other thing that does the most to anchor this film is of course Gordon-Levitt. The star is absolutely brilliant, as usual, in a role that requires great subtlety to play correctly–watch his face carefully in his scene after he hides Seth: Joe wants to be Sam Spade, but he doesn’t quite have that level of confidence, then he goes into Abe’s office with a sarcastic grin that Humphrey Bogart would be proud of. Bruce Willis plays the older version of Joe, which is a much simpler role, and plays it pretty well. Some of his more emotive scenes are a bit forced, but they’re not terrible, and he is surprisingly believable back in his usual badass role after the last time that I saw him he was playing a broken down old detective in Sin City (Robert Rodriguez/Frank Miller, USA 2005). No one else really has much of a role to play, so no one really stands out in any way.
A note should be given to Nathan Johnson’s score, which is every bit as excellent as his work on Brick. Nathan Johnson, Rian’s brother, has an excellent light touch with his scores, not trying to manipulate the audience too much but just enhancing what his brother is already doing on screen–he could teach a lesson to a great many film composers.
All told, this was excellent work with almost no flaws. It bears a startling stylistic and thematic similarity to the last good “science fiction” film made, Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, USA/UK 2006), and is similarly a bit by-the-numbers dystopian, but there is enough here that’s unique and even what is not unique is so well done that it really does not matter. Rian Johnson hasn’t missed yet, and it’s about time that we just start calling him the best director working today.
A Minor Related Note That Will Surely Be Too Long
I’m putting science fiction in quotes because I think everyone knows what the popular definition of the phrase is, but it’s really inaccurate as to what science fiction is supposed to be. Science fiction is supposed to be based on real or theoretically possible technology and that technology is the basis of the story. For example, 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, USA/UK 1968) and Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, USA 1968) are science fiction. This definition is why Ray Bradbury and Michael Crichton both often chafed at being called science fiction writers, with Bradbury often explaining that he considered his work, rightly, to be fantasy with the exception of The Martian Chronicles.
Most modern “science fiction,” particularly in films, is not strictly science fiction: Alien (Ridley Scott, USA/UK 1979) and Pitch Black (David Twohy, USA 2000) are horror films, Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, USA 1990) and Inception (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK 2010) are psychological thrillers, and Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, USA/Hong Kong/UK 1982) and Brazil (Terry Gilliam, UK 1985) are paranoid thrillers. This film is actually neo-noir, much more akin to Brick and Chinatown (Roman Polanksi, USA 1974) than to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I prefer to stick to using the more precise definition when possible, because the popular definition is so broad as to cover a wide range of films that share very little. Consider that Alien and Sleeper (Woody Allen, USA 1973) both fit into the popular definition of science fiction and how far apart those two films really are. It makes far more sense to me to categorize the former alongside films like Jaws (Steven Speilberg, USA 1975) and The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA 1980) and the latter alongside films like Thank You for Smoking and Play It Again, Sam (Herbert Ross, USA 1972). However, as far as usage goes, this is a long-over war, and the more precise definition has lost out.