No time like the past for murder
LOOPER is a stylish sci-fi thriller with a loopy plot. It’s another timetravel story, and while I’m happy to go along with time travel in the context of intergalactic adventure and romantic fantasy, it’s not a subject I want to take seriously. It’s impossible, I think, to construct a time-travel plot that is free of logical contradiction. Take the Terminator films. For all the brilliance of their special effects, they suffered from a central weakness. If the android sent from the future had succeeded in killing the young John Connor, outwitting Arnold Schwarzenegger in the process, there could have been no adult John Connor to lead the human rebels in their battle against the robots. But since we know that John Connor lived on, the central premise of the plot is undermined, along with any real possibility for suspense.
But I mustn’t be picky. Looper is the work of writer-director Rian Johnson, whose first film, Brick (2006), was a detective story set in a Californian high school. The characters were students — not student actors, but actors playing students. It was a thoroughly intriguing and original piece of work, despite some over-dense plotting that was sometimes hard to follow. And much the same can be said of Looper. Johnson is one of those directors who set great store by minimalism, an absence of emphasis and elaboration, a fondness for glancing, subliminal techniques of narrative development. So viewers are advised to pay close attention, especially in the early scenes. But once you get the hang of things, Looper exerts a powerful fascination — provided we don’t worry about the logic.
The setting is Kansas in 2042. A voiceover informs us that time travel has yet to be invented, but when it finally arrives, in 30 years’ time, it will be illegal. The only people using it will be criminals. For gangsters of the future it offers a foolproof method of disposing of their enemies. Victims, bound and blind-
(MA15+) ★★★ National release
(MA15+) ★★★✩✩ National release
✩ folded, are sent back in time to be murdered on the spot by cold-blooded killers (the loopers of the title), who dispose of the bodies. So there is nothing to link the gangsters with crimes committed in the past. And loopers are well paid. Strapped to the bodies of their victims are bars of precious metal. A looper can enjoy the high life — drugs, girls, fast cars. But sooner or later his contract will be terminated or, in the language of the film, his loop will be closed. Usually this happens when he discovers that he has killed an older version of himself. (I could say more about logical contradictions here, but what’s the point?)
Our hero is Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who played the schoolboy detective in Brick. Joe is a young looper whose older self is played by Bruce Willis; and thanks to some skilful makeup effects they could easily pass for father and son, except that they’re really the same person. The trouble is Joe the elder has no wish to be killed, by himself or anyone else: he’s enjoying life in the future, though from what we can see, the future looks pretty grim, with all those bleak industrial sites and desolate housing estates.
When old Joe escapes self-assassination, young Joe has to track him down and finish the job. This leads to some fairly conventional chase scenes, accompanied by some fairly conventional shootouts, of the kind now obligatory in Hollywood action movies.
Gordon-Levitt brings surprising warmth and dignity to the part of young Joe, and there is a depth of sorrow and tenderness in Willis’s performance reminiscent of his work in 12 Monkeys, another time-travel yarn, directed by Terry Gilliam. Jeff Daniels plays the criminal mastermind, and there’s a rather awkward love affair involving young Joe and a single mother (Emily Blunt), who lives in a lonely farmhouse with her little boy.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this child, who looks extremely sinister. Perhaps he’ll grow up to be a looper one day, or something worse — it would be unfair to say. Looper is dark, baffling, silly and charged with strange ideas. It will repay close attention; perhaps even a second viewing. ARBITRAGE, directed by Nicholas Jarecki, is what I call corporate noir — all those familiar 40s ingredients: illicit sex, betrayal and violent death, set in a glitzy 21st-century landscape of doomed financial markets and plummeting fortunes. With this sort of volatile mix, it’s surprising that Jarecki’s film feels so low-key. It’s enlivened — indeed it’s held together — by a seductively smooth performance from Richard Gere as a crooked investment banker, whose grey-haired respectability and easy charm make him every bit as charismatic as the raincoated, chain-smoking characters in old Raymond Chandler movies.
We’re used to seeing Gere in sleazy roles, and often his films had a nasty edge — Looking for Mr Goodbar, American Gigolo, Internal Affairs. But here he is perfectly cast, and after a slow patch in his career it’s good to see him back in mature good form.
He plays Robert Miller, smooth-talking boss of a New York investment firm on the verge of collapse. We open with Robert’s 60th birthday party, attended by his wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), and his daughter Brooke (Brit Marling), who helps run the firm and has learned much from dad about sharp business practices.
A cake is produced, candles are blown out, and Robert makes a little speech quoting Mark Twain on the subject of mind over matter: ‘‘ If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.’’ No one minds and it doesn’t seem to matter when Robert makes an early departure to visit the apartment of his mistress Julie (Laetitia Casta), where another cake is waiting.
Later that night Julie meets a violent death. Robert’s problem is not such much managing his grief but allaying the suspicions of a dogged police detective (Tim Roth), who doubts his story.
Throughout all this Robert has to fight to keep his financial empire afloat after a reckless investment in a Russian copper mine. Everyone is demanding money, and we suspect that Robert is rich and smart enough to buy his way out any crisis, legal, domestic or corporate. Whether he will succeed in the end, we can’t be sure.
The post-global financial crisis climate is coolly evoked, but this was done so well, and so much better, in Margin Call that there’s little left for Jarecki apart from recurrent helicopter shots of the Manhattan skyline and a level of financial exposition of which the phrase ‘‘ a licence to print money’’ is sadly typical. But the supporting cast is strong, especially Nate Parker as Jimmy, the black guy who owes Robert a favour, though Sarandon is wasted in a part too slight and underwritten to have much impact. It’s Gere’s film, and he does an excellent job disguising the slackness and contrivance of the story.
Joseph GordonLevitt as a young assassin in