Movies like Looper give me hope for American cinema. Rian Johnson’s film is a tight, stylish, deftly scripted crowd pleaser, a clever film that engages the audience viscerally, cognitively and emotionally. Its also a film that takes a schoolboy’s delight in the magic and thrill of cinema. Rian Johnson is film nerd, fanboy, and B-movie genre postmodern in the vein of Tarantino, with a smidge less irony and a bit more Raymond Chandler noir. His films (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) are characterized by anachronistic pop culture pastiche and the merging of multiple genre tropes.
His latest, Looper, borrows from time travel, gangster and sci-fi genres. It feels like Back to the Future meets Blade Runner meets Road to Perdition, with a little bit of X-Men. There are gangs, hit men, hovercrafts, pocket watches, rural roadside diners, seedy underworld clubs, drugs, guns, and even some telekinesis.
Above all, though, Looper is a brain-twister. In the head-scratching spirit of Christopher Nolan’s headier narrative mazes (Inception, Memento), Johnson’s Looper takes the viewer on a loop-de-loop tour back and forth in time, on multiple levels and layers of reality as we observe the paradoxical meeting of a man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his future self (Bruce Willis), who he is being paid to kill. If it already sounds confusing, just wait. By the end of the film, my fiancee and I literally had to sit down at coffeeshop and draw diagrams of the plot and story lines to make sense of what we just saw. Which is awesome. I can’t remember the last film that made me work so hard to piece together the narrative, which I think is a great thing. Maybe The Tree of Life was the last one.
I love films that play with time, experimenting with new ways of arranging things temporally. Tarkovsky said cinema is “sculpting in time,” and I think he is right. Films can take us back and forth hours, days, years and (in the case of The Tree of Life) millennia, in the span of minutes of screen time. Cinema of all the arts, I believe, is most well-equipped to do interesting things with the story vs. plot, or, as the Russian formalists call it, the fabula vs. sjuzhet. Story/fabula refers to the actual happenings, in chronological order, of the story one is telling. Plot/sjuzhet refers to the what we see on screen, sometimes in fragmented or non-chronological order. When I was drawing diagrams for Looper (which, appropriately, ended up looking like loops), I was trying to reconcile the plot and story. Some may not enjoy doing the work to “figure out” a film in this way, but I do.
Looper is more than just a brain-teasing intellectual exercise, however. It has some excellent action sequences and great tension, and some pretty interesting thematic ideas about nature/nurture, violence, fate and parenting. I’d say it’s the best time travel-related action film since at least Terminator 2, and certainly one of the most satisfying films of the year thus far.
Below: My diagram to make sense of the story/plot immediately after watching the film.