Rian Johnson’s first two films, Brick and The Brother’s Bloom, take a genre and escape from it. He treats the genre with respect, indulging its finer aspects and crafting creative ways to explore its interests, but from there, the films manage to angle toward something else, something more personal and interesting. Brick and The Brother’s Bloom tend to widely receive respect even in the face of their mixture of acclaim and disappointment. The latter film, particularly, couldn’t quite manage to pull its emotional threads properly together. Johnson’s third film is Looper, and it takes this same approach. Looper is outwardly a science fiction film, but as it moves on, Looper mixes these elements into something much simpler and arguably more difficult to manage.
For as much as we love time travel, the inevitable issue comes in the plausibility of it all. If we spot glaring problems then we simply can’t respect the film’s intelligence, let alone buy into its twists. Films frequently solve this by giving us hard, enumerated rules, even if those rules don’t hold up to an entirely taught logic. Looper is clever in its handling of these matters. Time travel is new and confusing, and the characters of the film understand it no better than we do. When our protagonist Joe asks someone else to clarify something during a tense moment, the other character derides him for wasting time. He even jokes about how he isn’t about to start making charts and diagrams. Better, however, is that Looper does provide rules, albeit loose ones. The film largely shows us these workings rather than having someone sit down and tell us. We watch how a person’s future self is affected by changes in their past. We see a character struggling with the mental differences between what his life was and what it’s becoming. This way of doing things speaks to Looper’s strength in storytelling. What would otherwise be convoluted science fiction mechanics are briskly, unconsciously explained to us amid the scene’s happenings.
Looper, like Johnson’s previous two films, was written by him as well. He has a certain way with dialogue that’s something of a mix between Aaron Sorkin’s snappy speed and humor and The Cohen Brothers’ simplicity and dialect. The characters all sound like they’re from a specific place and time. When Joe sits down to breakfast with a future version of himself, we can see similarities in their ideas and their speech. More important, Johnson knows how to break down the complexities of a situation and allow two people to speak with one another in a relaxed way. Though their conversation may come across casually, this only elevates the tension of the moment. We see good friends and old acquaintances forced to rework their rapports into something much crueler. His attention to smart, honest dialogue also allows Johnson to bring Looper into its second half, which almost feels like a different film entirely.
Without saying much, it must be noted how the film’s tone changes. The first act or more of this film is hyperactive and stylized in noir sensibilities. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Joe is downright cool, even if it’s clear he has problems. Johnson manages these carefully. Joe has plans and dreams, and we know that he’ll live them through. Joe also is swept up in his money and in the oftentimes sick culture of the near-future. We get montages of spinning cameras, text overlays, time passing. Here we’re in a film about gangsters, but once Joe is in serious trouble, the film almost becomes something more about family. We watch relationships develop between three scared, lonely people - it’s a far cry from the eccentricity and greed of the city.
Looper’s near-future is a smart one. It’s lightly indulgent in its science-fiction additions - slick helicopters and floating motorbikes - but largely it’s a rundown version of the present. There are small touches that show how well crafted Looper’s world is. We see a modern truck outfitted with tubes wrapping around it that stem from the gas tank. This isn’t a detail that’s drawn attention to, it’s just flavor to flesh out the world. This normality is smart, cool, and appreciated. We’re in what is plausibly the real world. No one does anything weird. Styles have come back around. Joe dresses in 1950s flare with a slick leather jacket.
Johnson shows us this world in wide shots that are cut across by heavy horizontal lines. The camera can sometimes have a momentum to it. It twists and turns. It follows characters and then detaches from them as if riding off of their movement. Johnson sometimes presents us details in close ups. They are gently revealed as though showing a friend a stone in your hand. Much of this film relies on the two versions of Joe interacting, and this comes off impressively well. Gordon-Levitt is made to look like Bruce Willis, who plays the character’s older self. Gordon-Levitt keeps his face stern and slanted, mimicking Willis’s looks and traits so well that it truly seems that his Joe very naturally becomes Willis’s.
Looper is a smart science fiction film, even if to an extent it doesn’t seem to care about its own mythology. This casual treatment however works toward the film’s strengths. It’s humorous and modern, and that actually makes this a more plausible world. Even so, there are smart ideas here, and it’s even better that these are only tools to build toward a story of tension and relationships. This is easily Johnson’s best film, and it should only make us eager to see more from him. His debut, Brick, was a low budget piece, but he’s clearly having an easier and easier time breaking out. This expansion of genres indulges our love for the unreal, but Johnson’s interest still lies in his characters and emotions. That makes Looper a seriously smart and strong film.