No time like the past for murder

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

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.

Looper

Joseph Gor­donLe­vitt as a young as­sas­sin in

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