Science fiction is regarded as the medium of ideas, but so rarely does that intention cross the fraught border into film, where collaboration and the need for broad appeal too often forces the compromise of dumbing down and easy explanations and linear storytelling to dilute any ingenuity or originality of a filmmaker. Fortunately, for his third feature, writer/director Rhian Johnson has managed to survive the challenge and construct a thoughtful and coherent film that satisfies both the intellectual and more primal members of a multiplex audience.
Reuniting with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, star of his debut feature Brick, the loopers of the title are hired killers who dispose of unwanted persons from thirty years in the future, where time travel has been invented, and the easiest way to dispose of bodies is in a past where no one will be looking for them. The traditional payment is bars of silver, strapped to the target when he materializes in the present, hands tied and head sacked, for immediate execution.
His life is stylish and alluring, but the price is high, and Joseph Simmons is not an appealing character. He is arrogant and dismissive of those around him, driving his sports car through slums with a disregard for the safety of pedestrians, fulfilling his obligations to his employer, Jeff Daniels’ Abe, the representative of the future criminal organisation who came back to the present to keep the wetworks running smoothly.
Unfortunately, things come off the rails for Joe’s friend Seth (Paul Dano) when he is required to “close his loop” – eliminate his own future self in return for a final payoff in gold. Unable to fulfil the contract, the future Seth escapes, and present Seth must pay the price for failure in a scene where the graphic repercussions of disobedience echo to the future and bounce back to the present, devastating ripples through time.
It would seem that further down the line there will be a coup, and an individual known only as the Rainmaker is closing all the loops, and inevitably, on a bright morning appointment with a blunderbuss and moral ambivalence, Joe meets his future self in the form of Bruce Willis, and any plans he had for his future unravel in a flash.
It is here that the previously uncanny prosthetics that Gordon-Levitt wears to more closely resemble Willis lose some of their power; possibly the film was made out of sequence and the process was not perfected, possibly the bright lighting exposes the flaws, but fortunately he has mastered the expressions of the veteran actor, and both give excellent performances, as would be expected of Gordon-Levitt, but demonstrating Willis has an engagement with the material he so often lacks.
The violence moves from cartoon to bloody very swiftly and the shades of grey turn to absolute black, but while it may be that Bruce Willis has an exclusivity clause in his contract regarding machine gun use, there is more to the film than that, including a stunning wordless interlude in which the whole future unfolds had Joe fulfilled his contract.
The influences on the film are many, and while The Matrix is mentioned in publicity, the only link is the leather jackets and unpredictability. More accurate are the cityscape of Blade Runner the mood of Donnie Darko and the Lynch vibe on the soundtrack, but out of these comes an original story and vision.
It is possible that an audience would have rejected this film had decades of previous time travel film and television not primed them in the language, so it is not necessary to spoon feed why old Joe only recalls the past as fast as it happens, unable to remember what hasn’t happened yet, and there are plot holes – would it not be more likely to ensure compliance if future loose ends weren’t sent to strangers for elimination? – but in a year where vacuity has reached new watery depths in Hollywood, that loophole is easily forgiven.
Looper is on general release from Friday 28th September