Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Looper (2012) – Review

Review: Looper is an inventive genre blending sci-fi film that relies more on its great characters than its impressive stylized action. It is about Joe, a contract killer for the mob – only he works for them thirty years in the past, as they send targets back in time for him to kill. When Joe’s future self is sent back, he is startled and lets him escape. Now, to get his life back, he must hunt down and kill his future self.

Writer-director Rian Johnson is known for his genre blending (especially with his first film Brick). With Looper, it is a lot more nuanced. On the surface the film has very much a sci-fi style, reminiscent of Blade Runner and Akira, taking place in a future dystopian society in which the disparity between the classes is so profound that there are roaming hordes of homeless (known as ‘vagrants’), but underneath there are a lot of elements that feel like a western, both story wise and visually – things like: the bad guys wear black (particularly when the gatmen pick up Old Joe, they look like villains in a western with their trench coats and black hats), much of the film takes place on an isolated farm/ranch with characters waiting for the final shootout and one of the characters is a gunslinger of sorts called Kid Blue (named after the 1973 western). From a narrative standpoint, the western elements stem from the showdown between Joe and Old Joe, each representing a fundamental way of life (Old Joe is experienced and fights for what he cares about, while Joe has his life in front of him and is fighting for his time/his future). Westerns often focus on the confrontation of old and new (the changing of the west – the film is also set primarily in Kansas which is one of the gateways to the west; the boundary between the Wild West and the civilized east). There are also a number of standoffs in the film – a visual and narrative staple of westerns. Yet, the film is primarily made up of sci-fi and action beats and touchstones (it is about time travel after all).

Structurally, Johnson has to spend a lot of time explaining how his future works, how time travel works, what a Looper is – yet, the first act is very good, despite all the business and exposition to get through. Johnson achieves this by placing voiceover narration over visuals of a typical day in Joe’s life. By doing this, the audience gets all the story elements they need to know while also getting a sense of who Joe is – economic storytelling at its best, only to be topped by one of the best montage's in film history displaying Joe's transition into Old Joe. However, Johnson also changes the pace of the film, as most of the film is continually moving forward like a typical action film until Joe gets to the farm, and then things slow way down allowing for the characters to be developed and for the audience to really take a deeper stake in Joe, as the tension builds toward a final showdown. This change of pace, however, does leave the middle feeling a little slow, juxtaposed to the quick action beats and economical storytelling that proceeds it.

The characters and their arcs are probably the strongest aspect of the film. Johnson does a wonderful job playing with the audience’s perception of them. Joe and Old Joe seem to take turns being the protagonist and antagonist. In most films, characters are fixed (for the most part) in their roles in the narrative, but here Johnson continually twists the audience’s expectations and anticipations. This works well as the characters feel much more dynamic and interesting – in not knowing quite who to root for, the audience ends up caring about both Joe and Old Joe. The supporting characters are also rich and compelling (especially Sara, Abe and Kid Blue).

Visually, the film is also fantastic and highly stylized. Johnson specifically cares about every camera move, every cut, every piece of mise en scene – essential every frame. Without its hip and flashy style, the film would just not be the same. Johnson’s dystopia is sort of a retro-future, as if the economy failed and manufacturing stopped. There are futuristic visual elements (like the hoover bike) and recognizable products from today (like most of the cars). The change is more sociopolitical than technological. The main sci-fi visual touchstone comes in the form of the massive bleak city that seems to consume and dwarf everything around it (similar to Blade Runner’s Los Angeles). There are also a few gadgets. It is more in the narrative that the more classic sci-fi elements are present.

Despite the slight pacing issue, Looper is very entertaining and cinematically exciting due to its lush characters, striking visuals and overall brilliance of Johnson’s vision and script. To say it simply, it is just a cool and refreshingly different film (it gave me the same feeling as last year’s Drive).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Rian Johnson, now three films in, is definitely one of the most exciting young filmmakers (and potential auteur). His writing and visual style is completely fresh as he twists, subverts and mixes genres and genre archetypes. I very much look forward to his future work (as I have high aspirations for him and his projects). Looper is his most accessible film (in terms of mass audience appeal) and probably his best to date (though, Brick is great as well).

Nathan Johnson’s score is unique in its sound, providing the film with its sci-fi tone. It is very interesting and avant-garde (listen to it here). Steve Yedlin’s cinematography seems to heighten the reality of each environment with stylized lighting. It is great work. Ed Verreaux’s production design is brilliant, and among the best work I have seen this year. The overall look of the film has a very collapsed society feel to it, but not totally destroyed as if things went bad and then people learned to live within the new world and moved on. The sets are wonderfully dilapidated and adapted.

The performances, much like everything in the film, are stylized and specific. Garret Dillahunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, and especially Noah Segan are very good in small roles. Newcomer Pierce Gagnon is surprisingly good as Cid. Emily Blunt plays the typical desolate female ranch owner (in westerns) who the stranger comes across (only Johnson twists it). She plays Sara to be strong yet very empathetic (she sort of reminded me of Sarah Conner in the first Terminator). Bruce Willis is very good in the film, playing his ‘tough guy’ routine with more of an emotional measure (he really lets the audience in). Joseph Gordon-Levitt is also very good as he essentially has to play a younger version of Willis, capturing the mannerisms and so on. However, their Joes differ in how they view themselves and what they want, and in this their performances feel individual.

Summary & score: Looper is captivating, as it has great action set pieces, compelling characters and a cool style, but it is the film’s inventiveness and originality that makes it special. 8/10 

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