I greatly admire the construction of Rian Johnson’s screenplay for Looper. It’s not that he took on the daunting task of building a story around time travel and emerged with something that doesn’t collapse under unsolvable conundrums of logic, an almost impossible task given this particular sci-fi concept. (It surely helps that he addresses this problem directly and wittily in the dialogue, basically having one character with a decent working knowledge of the futuristic science offering the weary acknowledgment that “it’s messy.”) Instead, I love everything in Looper that represents smart, exceptional screenwriting, regardless of genre. Details that are key to later moments in the film are introduced in a manner that might call attention to them, not because they’re obvious plot points but because they snap with ingenuity. The characters are fully drawn with a keen understanding, appropriate for the time-hopping plot, of how personalities shift over the years, especially as those individuals are impacted by the hardest choices. The film has a thematic heft that directly corresponds with its storytelling conceits. The loop embedded in the title is has an explanation in the context of the fiction, but it has a deeper, more important meaning that relates to hopeless circles of violence deployed in place of solutions.
Without getting too deep into the intricacies of the plot, which are best left unspoiled, Johnson recruits his Brick star Joseph Gordon-Levitt to play a hired assassin around forty years in the future with a very unique specialty. Gordon-Levitt is practically unrecognizable under a thick layer of makeup and CGI, but he also disappears because his formidable tools as an actor: his physical bearing, the roughness of his voice, the restless anxiety of his eyes. He comes into a very direct conflict with his employers when one hit, the one that’s supposed to be his last, goes wrong, leading to a edgy conflict between one who wants to change the course of the future and another committed less to preserving the set path and more with simply bringing the current battle to a close.
Johnson, who also made the exceptional and underappreciated The Brothers Bloom, plainly knows how to put a movie together, and Looper almost glows with the command and confidence he brings to it. It is an action movie that is unashamedly complex, an emotional drama that is forceful and even adds a surprising tinge of horror to it. While he may occasional rely a little too much on fortuitous coincidence, those little cheats so winningly contribute to the wild ride of the film that it easy to forgive them. Or, at least, it was easy for me. There are at least two different set piece scenes, each taking place in a farmhouse living room, that are as marvelously constructed as anything I’ve seen all year.
Besides the previously mentioned Gordon-Levitt, Johnson gets terrific supporting performances out of Jeff Daniels and Emily Blunt, employs Paul Dano in a perfect bit of casting and even manages to reverse the recent trend of Bruce Willis’s career which has found him completely disengaged from whatever he’s being asked to do (Willis apparently reserves his best efforts for creative directors tinkering with time travel). And the director surely didn’t dull my affection for his work by finding a way to include Garret Dillahunt in the proceedings. Johnson knows that performances are another vital piece of carrying an interesting idea all the way to being a great movie. Thankfully, he also know how to put all those pieces together.