Sunday, September 30, 2012

Looper: Death To Geek Cinema

“Looper” is a film that features a lead character of casual immorality. Casually digesting drugs and spending off hours with prostitutes, he punches the clock as a hitman operating specifically through an elaborate time-bending operation where he doesn’t sweat the small stuff when it comes time to pump lead into his victims. “Looper” is a film of excessive casual violence, including bodies mowed down by heavy artillery and victims being shot in the head point blank. And in one late scene (and don’t worry, I will mark spoiler discussion later when necessary), a young boy is chased like a dog by a man with a gun with the intention to murder him.

These are very dark, somewhat vulgar, but otherwise mature concepts. They are escapist in nature, certainly, and I’ve seen many films with similar ideas and tropes. So why is it that when I saw them in “Looper,” I wanted to tear my hair out? Certainly there are a number of reasons. Chief amongst them, however, is that in the midst of all this darkness, in the middle of an important sequence, one character whizzes by in a sputtering flying motorcycle in an effect worthy of “Megaforce.”

It’s the moment when I threw up my hands and said, that’s it, I’m done with this. I’m done with Comic Con culture. I’m done with the forced legitimazation of juvenile adventure tropes and ideas. I’m done with the grown adults who clutch “The Hunger Games” and “Harry Potter” books. I’m done with those championing “The Dark Knight Rises” for Academy consideration. I’m done with the bleak nihilism of these stories, the idea that everyone dies except the hero, because the sacrifices he made killed him inside a long time ago. I’m done with the fact that today’s B-Pictures dress themselves up as A-Pictures, and “good movies WITHOUT lasers” is more of a genre than “movies where guys have capes.” I’m done with the “realism” where the unnatural has to have a scientific explanation, where everything has to be somewhat plausible, where things have to be dirty and grimy, violent and hopeless, where surprise and swagger gives was to dull inevitability and poker-faced efficiency.

“Looper,” for all its seriousness and pretension, is yet another contemporary pew-pew genre exercise. Somehow, despite being based around the central conceit of a man trying to change his past (Bruce Willis, otherwise excellent), “Looper” feels joyless and dire, a dead serious attempt at merging the fantastical (which Johnson is not yet skilled enough to achieve) with the arithmetic (which Johnson loves for clearly masturbatory reasons). Joseph Gordon Levitt plays the titular asshole, a glum-faced, self-medicating killer who doesn’t show any real character until he’s easily goaded into selling out his douchebag partner (Paul Dano, of course).

Gordon-Levitt has been pushed on the public for awhile now, and 2012 is his banner year, this being one of four big films this year from the actor. As far as movie stars go, he certainly tries hard. He doesn’t do much of a job giving his Joe an inner life beyond youthful selfishness, and you keep waiting for a deepening of his personality when Old Joe appears. Willis, wearing his regrets on his bald dome like a tattoo, is instantly two things -- interesting before we hear his dialogue, and absolutely nothing like Young Joe, despite the story’s insistence that they are the same person.

As it turns out, these Loopers, who kill people in 2044 or something, are sent victims from thirty years in the future. The forties don’t seem to have the same ID laws as the seventies, meaning that with time travel a possibility in the distant future, the mob is forced to dispose of bodies in the near future instead. A Looper’s job ends when they receive a body that happens to be an older version of themselves, loaded with gold. From that point, it’s a thirty-year free ride to the grave. Why they don’t just assign old Loopers to totally unrelated younger Loopers is a complete mystery to me, but I don’t time travel, so whatever.

The moment near the end of the first act where the story shifts (and I will gradually be spoiling the rest of the film from here on out -- I hope you still stay with me regardless) is when Young Joe ends up killing Old Joe. The picture then amusingly montages over the next thirty years as Gordon-Levitt ages into a much more peaceful older man played by Willis. There’s always been a sadness to Willis in his old age -- perhaps it’s his baldness accentuating the fact that, as an action hero, he’s never been a muscle-y type, and from certain angles, there’s a distinct frailty to his physicality. It’s why he seemed so out-of-place amongst the ‘roid-heads in the recent “The Expendables 2,” and why the hope is, once the “Die Hard” series ends after part, I don’t know, nine, Willis may segue into more dramatic work.

In minimal screen time, Willis establishes his Old Joe with enough humanity that you’re immediately on his side when he realizes his only choice is to surrender to his trip to the past to outwit his younger self (which he does, because, Bruce Willis). The plot is in motion, and as far as goofy-ass comic book plots, it’s a doozy -- a mysterious telekinetic (another superficial sci-fi element that cheapens the story) has taken over the mob families and is systematically eliminating all Loopers. If you thought it was the plot of a comic book super villain, it will be of no surprise to you that he goes by the name The Rainmaker.

Having done the detective work, Joe and Old Joe soon learn that the Rainmaker is a child in the current timeline, and Old Joe seeks to end the kid’s life in order to preserve the happiness of his old age with a saintly, wordless, much younger bride, the type these films always tend to have. What nags at me here is that the young actor who plays the boy is so sweet and so compelling that you immediately want this boy to survive, even if it complicates the lives of both Joes (young Joe is in deep for “letting his loop run”).

Spoiler discussion of the ending is approaching. I think spoilers are stupid, but I respect the fact you may not, hence spoiler warning. FYI, Hannibal Lecter totally gets away at the end.

What troubled me the most about “Looper” was how the ending is so deeply embedded in contemporary cynicism. Young Joe realizes that the Rainmaker’s motivation for killing the Loopers comes from Old Joe’s pursuit of the boy, where he gets away and his mother (or mother-figure - it‘s a little complicated) lets a bullet sandwich from Old Joe go straight to her hips, if you know what I mean. Seeing this happen, and not wanting the boy to give in to his darker urges, nor to see the Rainmaker spend the future hunting Loopers, Young Joe puts a bullet in himself instead. He dies, Old Joe fades from reality, the Rainmaker’s mommy lives.

Now, let’s put aside the ludicrous time travel logic of this event, which suggests, in a first timeline, that the Rainmaker plots to kill Old Joe, leading Old Joe to cause the origin of the Rainmaker in a second timeline. Let’s look at Young Joe’s solution. First of all, I am bothered by the idea that one more bullet is going to stop all the suffering. On an ideological level, I find that ugly dime-store dramatics, the suggestion that a cycle of violence can be prevented by another, isolated violent act.

But more importantly, the narrative takes a shortcut to obscure the more humanist conclusion to this story. First of all, we’ve just watched the boy murder the hell out of some sort of shifty agent who was stalking him, so the boy still has blood on his hands. His intentions are bad, and as he grows older, they’re bound to get worse, with or without Loopers. Maybe Young Joe saved the lives of these douchebag Loopers by ending his own, but why? Nevermind the fact that we know NOTHING about the identities of those the Loopers kill. Just a stack of dead bodies for Rian Johnson, he of the selective compassion.

So Young Joe is watching Old Joe take aim at the boy and his mother, and he doesn’t once consider the more sensible, compassionate solution. First of all, though he becomes a Terminator in the third act, fact is, Old Joe cannot kill Young Joe, because he would be committing suicide. That gives Young Joe thirty years to reach out to this orphaned, lonely boy, one whom it’s established he shares an immediate rapport. Thirty years dedicated not to preventing something (the boy becoming “Akira”) but to developing something else. His telekinesis helping the world. His growing up to not seek revenge on others, but to become a contributing member to society. And Young Joe finally becoming an actual proactive hero, for the first time in the film, instead of making himself a martyr based on an accurate hunch.

These elements of hopelessness and despair stick out amidst Johnson’s half-hearted world building (future Oklahoma is a dump, with the simpleminded suggestion being “people stopped caring”) and uninspired action sequences (shot with a refreshing austerity, but staged blandly and without imagination). I’ve heard the picture compared to Paul Verhoeven, and it makes me want to retch. I’ve heard Young Joe’s decision at the end compared to Oskar Schindler, and it makes my blood boil. Because it’s clearly a juvenile picture without a sense of humor under thought, callous, and without any redeeming qualities, given a pass because of many different plot dynamics, none of them interesting. It’s busy without being interesting, cluttered, but in the same way completely empty.

I have struggled with these recent pictures in this vein. Critics went gaga over “The Raid: Redemption,” and while I appreciated the reverence to Johns Woo and Carpenter, I found it an empty exercise in sadism, without any characters, and with a certain monotony to the violence borne out of it’s setting (as if the filmmaker, like the characters, were stuck in this claustrophobic world). “The Dark Knight Rises” was embraced because it acknowledged politics was the elephant in the room of superhero films, without once giving a coherent reading of said ideologies, content to wallow in pornographic, bludgeoning melodrama and violence instead. And then there was the inexplicable hosannas thrown the way of “Dredd 3D,” a serviceable time-waster that nonetheless showcased execution-style killings, unknowable drug-addled villains and a hero that’s essentially a bullet with feet. All seemed, on paper, like pictures that would thrill me. All are cut from the same cloth as “Looper.” It’s cloth I don’t think I can wear anymore.

1 comment:

  1. I’m done with the “realism” where the unnatural has to have a scientific explanation, where everything has to be somewhat plausible, where things have to be dirty and grimy, violent and hopeless, where surprise and swagger gives was to dull inevitability and poker-faced efficiency.

    These are all problems I had with "Blade Runner", though actually the main problem I had was more the horrifically poor pacing.

    Heck, you seem to praise "The Dark Knight Rises" here, but surely that suffers from the exact same problem? On top of having plot holes vital to the story which you could drive a lorry through...

    What you are essentially saying here is that you don't like dystopian films. It's pretty unfair to criticise a movie for its genre. Shouldn't the question be whether "Looper" achieves what it was aiming for?

    First of all, I am bothered by the idea that one more bullet is going to stop all the suffering.

    I didn't think the ending was as clear-cut as that. YoungJoe's sacrifice does not guarantee anything. It's not clear that OldJoe is the only looper coming for him. What YoungJoe's sacrifice represents is (1) him caring about something other than himself (something with OldJoe claimed to already be doing right before he started his infanticide to regain his lost love) (2) him having faith that the Rainmaker's mom (with whom he himself is romantically entangled) can bring the boy up NOT to become someone like the Rainmaker.

    It could well still be misplaced faith. But since the alternative seems to be inevitable disaster (what, OldJoe is going to stand a chance against the boy?), YoungJoe's only other choice is not to care.

    His intentions are bad, and as he grows older, they’re bound to get worse

    Um... what? Hang on, his instinct in that case was to protect his mother. How is that a bad intention? And yes, if it's "bound" to get worse then YoungJoe's sacrifice is entirely wasted, but you don't know that. So yeah, you've got a pretty nihilistic interpretation there...