Rian Johnson’s Problematic Looper

LooperAnother day, another time travel movie. Last week, I watched Looper and last night, I watched a bit of it to remind me what it was all about. It is the third film by Rian Johnson. The first was Brick, an interesting but ultimately disappointing film. The second was The Brothers Bloom, an interesting but ultimately disappointing film. Looper is also an interesting but ultimately disappointing film.

The basic plot is that a crime syndicate 30 years in the future sends people back in time to be killed and disposed of. The Loopers do the killing. When they are done with their careers, they from 30 years later are sent back to be killed. After that, they get to hang out for 30 years until the syndicate finds them and sends them back in time to be killed. Time travel narratives are always difficult. I’m fine with paradox, but it really creates a drag on drama. And personally, it takes me out of the film.

A good example happens at the beginning of the film where a minor character allows his 30 year old self to escape. In order to get the older character to come in so he can be killed, they start cutting parts off the younger character’s body. These immediately disappear from the older character. By the time he comes in, he has so little left of his body that he has to crawl. This creates nothing so much as a thousand questions in my mind. It is later explained in the film that as different things happen, it changes the probability distribution of the future character’s life. I think a fairly interesting science fiction story could grapple with some of these issues. But the film does not and it creates a muddled foundation on which to hang the plot.

Apart from this, there are other problems. Johnson is a distinctly intellectual writer. When it comes to emotion, he is largely lost. Other than having less stylized dialog, the main character in Looper (Joe) is no different than the main character in Brick. They are both hard men who don’t seem to care about anyone. Yet both plots depend upon the character actually caring. There is no arc for the character. This is particularly problematic in Looper, where the plot depends upon Joe changing from selfish to altruistic. In the end, I didn’t buy it.

The film is also overly dependent on exposition voice over. It’s almost too much at the beginning when Joe provides what seems like a treatise on loopers. And it comes in multiple chapters, I assume because even Johnson realized he was telling the audience way too much to do it all at once. But that isn’t the greatest sin—we are used to films talking too much to get the plot rolling. The problem is at the end when Joe does something that is completely out of character. The denouement is totally dependent upon it. But it would have made no sense if Joe hadn’t been there to explain it.

Having now seen all three of Rian Johnson’s feature films, I do think I have a handle on him. I think he is a good director. And as a writer, he has a lot of good ideas. But he is badly in need of a writer to fix the many problems that he doesn’t seem capable of fixing. First, he needs someone who can write interesting characters. Even his best characters are two-dimensional. Second, he needs someone who can provide an emotional core to his scripts. He’s clearly aware of this problem because he does play around with it, even if he is ineffectual. And finally, he needs someone who can land the ending. Brick was okay because it was pure genre. But both The Brothers Bloom and Looper have endings that don’t mesh with what came before.

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