Rian Johnson is the best noir writer/director currently in the business. Period. Having already made a name for himself among cinephiles and indie enthusiasts with his masterful feature debut Brick, and his follow-up con-artist caper The Brothers Bloom, the 39-year-old Johnson looked to take the mainstream by storm with Looper. The star power of the exponentially popular Joseph Gordon-Levitt, veteran action stud Bruce Willis, and the ever-breathtaking Emily Blunt undoubtedly contributed to the film’s early box office success; but Rian Johnson deserves the highest praise of all for delivering the most complete and compelling sci-fi action thriller in recent memory.
Though Johnson has worked primarily as a director over the years—in addition to his three features, he has directed episodes of Breaking Bad, Terriers, and various music videos—it is his writing that has arguably been the most impressive and distinguishing quality of his feature work. The man has all but mastered every facet of the screenplay, from conception to execution, and Looper may be his most audacious accomplishment yet.
In classic noir fashion, our protagonist Joe (Gordon-Levitt) fluidly explains via voice over the status quo of the world we’ve entered. The year is 2044, and “loopers” are contract killers hired to murder victims sent to them from the future—the term looper derives from another term, “closing the loop,” which is when the looper kills their future self, for which they are rewarded a hefty amount of gold and a 30-year retirement.
Time travel is undoubtedly a sticky subject ripe for errors in continuity and clariy, and Looper is not without its flaws here or there. But honestly, all logistical shortcomings notwithstanding, the film is so damn good it’s hard to get caught up in issues regarding the space/time continuum. Hell, Prometheus existed within an entirely linear time line, and I still couldn’t tell you what the hell I was supposed to take from that cluster-fudge. Say what you want about Looper, but at the end of the day, Rian Johnson knows how to structure a story.
Despite its futuristic façade, Looper is a modern day film noir in every sense. Johson’s dialogue pops and sizzles at every turn like a 1940s gangster flick—I swear I fleetingly mistook Gordon-Levitt for Humphrey Bogart when he snidely responds to an impatient gunman: “You think it’s easy looking this good?” And as he has done throughout his career, Johnson demonstrates an uncanny ability to write with a unique vernacular almost as imaginative as the world within which it exists, all the more effectively immersing us in the narrative.
Not since Blade Runner has a film so successfully captured a dystopian future setting with such distinctly noir aesthetics. Characters lurk in the shadows of a gray and gritty metropolis, a backdrop as cold and hostile as its inhabitants. More importantly, however, Looper unapologetically ventures into territories of moral ambiguity that few studio blockbusters would dare to engage, and Johnson’s willingness to indulge the darker themes of the noir movement (nihilism, capitalism, apathy, etc.) is what allows Looper to be such a singularly compelling achievement.
Looper certainly doesn’t skimp on its promise for enthralling action—Bruce Willis is so triumphantly bad-ass that at one point my friend had to physically restrain me from leaping from my seat and shouting, “yippee ki-yay, mother-fudger!” But unlike so many actions films that reach for outlandish action at the expense of good storytelling, Looper refuses to indulge action for action’s sake. Johnson is a filmmaker’s filmmaker who appreciates that a true “thrill ride” requires far more than an artificial sensory assault of visual and auditory chaos. Nearly every scene is constructed with almost poetic precision, visually guiding the audience through a visceral journey of emotional responses.
The film’s popularity (at least so far) is almost ironic, really. In an era of action filmmaking characterized by ADHD editing and 3D gimmicks, Looper forgoes all of that, instead focusing on artfully crafted fundamentals; yet every person I’ve talked to who has seen Looper discusses the film with more jubilation than they felt following every previous action film this year combined. And while I don’t expect the rapid production of mindless blockbusters to cease anytime soon—if ever—I certainly cherish these moments when a film like Looper comes around and breaks the cycle.