Friday, August 12, 2016

The Old Joe is New Again

Common wisdom might say only a zealot would take a job that ended in certain death. Such wisdom forgets junkies and short sighted young people--these are the kinds of people who might take a job as a Looper in Rian Johnson's 2012 movie of that name. An amazing Sci-Fi noir, the movie has style and attitude with a genuine understanding of what makes good noir work.

A lot of people think noir is detectives and/or bad people in trench coats with a tragic ending. The introduction many people have had to noir as a concept in the past twenty years was probably Sin City, the anthology film in which the best story has Mickey Rourke as a big, strange looking guy who's willing to go any distance for his ideals. It's a good story but it's not really noir. A noir is almost always a tragedy in the classical sense of the word--that is, a story where the protagonist comes to a bad end and it really is his or her fault in some way. A good noir is the story of a guilty protagonist.

Looper is obviously to some extend about age. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in prosthetic make-up rivalling Mickey Rourke's in Sin City, plays Joe, a "Looper", a mob employee who murders people sent from the future so that their bodies can be untraceably disposed of. They're called Loopers because, sooner or later, every Looper knows that he's going to have to kill the future version of himself sent back. That's why all the people sent back are wearing hoods. They also have, strapped to their backs, the compensation--twenty or so bars of gold which the Looper can use to live comfortably for thirty years until he's forced to go back in time and be shot.

To a typical young hoodlum, thirty years sounds like a million years and the people working as Loopers tend to make other self-destructive lifestyle choices. Joe doesn't seem different from any other and doesn't seem to have many compunctions about murder or betraying a friend. Then Joe meets his future self, who unexpectedly comes back unbound and without a hood.

The older Joe is played by Bruce Willis, which is why Gordon-Levitt wears the funny nose. I have nothing against Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he's a decent actor and was good in Rian Johnson's Brick, though I don't think anyone's looking for him in movies. I think he's a guy who gets work more because filmmakers like him than because audiences do, Looper could certainly have done with casting someone who looked more like a young Bruce Willis. I remember hearing Terry Gilliam, in the 12 Monkeys DVD commentary, talk about how he likes Bruce Willis' nose, describing it as something that starts at the top as a beautiful Roman nose that then gets abruptly chopped off halfway down. Gordon-Levitt's prosthetic just approximates a normal Roman nose.

12 Monkeys is a movie many people have compared Looper to and its time travel logic is similarly satisfying. But Willis sitting down across from Gordon-Levitt in a diner establishes the film as being more about the contrast of perspective that comes with age. Older Joe doesn't seem to like younger Joe--he knows exactly how irresponsible this kid is and he's had the benefit of having been married to a woman who helped him through drug addiction and other self-descructive tendencies to find a happy and contented life. Until the past came to collect.

It's a common noir theme for a reformed man or woman to suddenly be haunted or ambushed by their past--one of the great classic noirs is even called Out of the Past. Maybe this concept was never more literally realised than it is by Looper.

But the story isn't simply about a reckless Joe versus a mature Joe. Older Joe may in fact be worse for the fact that he has a sense of responsibility and reverence--he has commitment to something now that could make him do worse things than he ever did when he didn't care.

Emily Blunt plays the mother of a gifted child and much of the movie takes place on her farm. Her character reflects the haunted past theme in a more traditional sense--she gave her son to her sister when she led a more reckless lifestyle but is now trying to make good since her sister's death. With this and Edge of To-morrow, Blunt seems to be establishing herself as a name in the time travel movie game.

Aside from Gordon-Levitt's prosthetics, the only complaint I have about the film is all the lens flares. With this movie, Johnson makes J.J. Abrams' lens flare-o-ramas seems like matte paintings. But I can easily forgive the film for this when it so successfully complicates the tragic hero story by the end.

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