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Looper (2012)

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Some movie trailers make me giggle. Others make me roll my eyes. An elite few achieve both. In the case of Looper, I couldn't help but laugh at the bizarre makeup applied to Joseph Gordon-Levitt's face to make him look like a younger version of Bruce Willis. The baby-hawk nose and exaggerated turtle lips had me on the prowl for the moment in the preview where it's revealed that Gordon-Levitt's character is wearing a disguise or something. Didn't happen--which gave the two-minute spot's epic seriousness all the emotional resonance of White Chicks.

I almost couldn't handle the capper, when I saw that Looper was written and directed by Rian Johnson, one of my generation's most overrated "visionary" directors. His debut film, Brick, is possibly the most painful movie I've ever had to talk about, mostly because I don't feel it's worthy of conversation. Once again, I find myself in the smallest of minorities on this one, but what can ya do?

Because this is the week's big, new movie, I knew I had to go see it, and the level of disinterest with which I said, "One for Looper, please" cannot be measured on any instruments yet created by science. But when the theatre lights came up three hours later (more on that in a moment), I'd forgotten every bullshit problem I'd had going in. You see, sometimes, a trailer is a giggler, an eye-roller, and a glimpse at one of the year's best films.

I'm not going to get into spoilers with this one, which would make me as low-down a criminal as Looper's main characters. This movie demands the respect of going in cold, and joins the pantheon of all-time-wonderful brain-teasers like The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense, Donnie Darko, and Fight Club. I will say that, like Quentin Tarantino, Johnson pays homage to what I assume are some of his favorite films, by masterfully rolling their more iconic ideas into something that feels utterly new in the moment. Looper is Back to the Future, The Terminator, Witness, and a pinch of The Twilight Zone's "It's a Good Life" episode all mashed into a story about hard-boiled characters living in a violent, high-tech future where time travel and psychic abilities are commonplace.

If you noticed that one of those films is not like the other, congrats on figuring out that Looper isn't your standard sci-fi action flick. It begins as a really smart version of that, but at almost precisely the mid-way point, Johnson slams on the brakes and dials the narrative way back; he raises the stakes while practically switching genres on his fast-paced head-scratcher. This may turn some audiences off, but taken as a whole, the relatively pastoral forty minutes that bridge the second and third acts are the most important--and the most moving.

In case you're lucky enough to have no idea what movie I'm talking about, and unsure of my advice to see it immediately, Looper takes place in Kansas, in the year 2044. Thirty years from then, time travel will have been invented and instantly outlawed. Organized crime has gotten hold of the technology, and uses it to send its enemies back in time--where they are summarily executed by hitmen called "loopers". Gordon-Levitt plays a cold, efficient, and extremely prolific looper named Joe, who blasts his victims in the sugar cane fields just outside the pitiful metropolis that has sprung up in the heartland. The trailers would have you believe that Joe's big "Until Something Went Wrong" moment happens when he's faced with executing an older version of himself (Willis), but that's only about a quarter of the story (an eighth or a sixteenth, if you're up for some hearty mental gymnastics).

Johnson achieves in Looper what he'd only aimed for in Brick: creating a modern hard-boiled noir film that dresses up classic detective thrillers in shiny, new clothes. The key is that, instead of taking the idea literally and having present-day high school students talking like Philip Marlowe, he allows the story to dictate the characters glum and desperate states--which, in turn, compels them to craft sad, scary, and down-and-out scenes without the distracting affectations. There's a scene towards the middle in which Willis and Gordon-Levitt meet at a diner that is funny, tense, and informative--and which may bring you to the verge of tears. This ten minutes has more plot, intrigue, and forward momentum in it than all two-and-a-half hours of The Master. It's also better acted. That's a bold call, I guess, but I stand by it.

Besides the two leads, who have never been better, the film is packed with terrific performances from the likes of Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, and Emily Blunt.* Maybe someday I'll write an in-depth analysis of why the fate of Dano's character blew my freaking mind. But this is not that day (plus, I'm lazy). You really need to see for yourself what they do with the juicy roles they've been given. 

With Looper, I believe Rian Johnson finally deserves the hype ascribed to him for over half a decade. He drops the audience into a far-fetched version of the future and lets them live with characters who are so used to the reality-shattering notions of time travel and psychic powers that these things have become societal punch-lines. Thanks to fate getting constantly twisted by disruptions in the space-time continuum, these lost souls also given a shot at a better life--one that could destroy or save absolutely everything. In the midst of this are solid, moving meditations on aging, parenthood, and the importance of each decision we make.** This is heavy stuff, but it's uplifting beyond belief.

Note: The funny thing about Gordon-Levitt's makeup is that, in the context of the full, big-screen experience, it didn't bother me at all. Yes, there are a couple of scenes where he looks odd, but that's just because I know what the actor looks like in real life. The applications are so eerily seamless that now the star looks weird to me without the prosthetics.

Additional Note: Wanna know just how much I love Looper? At five different points during the screening I attended, the sound cut out (ah, the magic of digital presentation!). Between the minutes of waiting for someone to grab an usher, the various ushers' promises that things would be "worked out momentarily", and having to watch five-minute stretches of film repeatedly as the projectionist performed courtesy track-backs, much of my experience was a first-world-problems nightmare. But I didn't leave. I couldn't. I had to know how the film ended, that day.

*The exception is her introductory scene, which finds the English actress trying on the most ridiculous American accent this side of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. In fairness, this might have come early in her filming schedule, as it mercifully disappears by the next scene.

**If you just want to see explosions, tits, and severed limbs, there are plenty of those, too.

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