Looper

A word of warning for would-be cinema-goers: here, there be monsters. I’m not talking about clinched Hollywood CGI monsters (though Looper contains plenty of innovative special effects). I mean human monsters, casually and unfeelingly taking the lives of others. This palpable atmosphere of violence permeates the entire film, the populace of Kansas City in year 2044 having grown harsher, more callous. Those beneath a certain social/economic stratum are disregarded entirely. The average citizen (or perhaps merely those characters we happen to encounter during the film’s 118 minute runtime) seems to be entirely unconcerned with the concept of, for example, hitting somebody with a car, or shooting a vagrant that wanders into their property. Granted, the context of the movie is that of brutal mafia-bosses and their hired assassins, but the openness with which they operate is beyond shocking. It occurs to me now that Looper appears to have a complete lack of police presence of any sort, which may explain the rest of the backdrop.

Putting the ugly vibe aside, Looper is completely thrilling, and certainly swings for the fences consistently, not satisfied with coasting on an interesting premise as Bruce Willis’ 2009 disappointment of a movie Surrogates did. Then again, neither is he the focus of the movie; Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character completely and utterly in charge of every scene, channeling perfectly the swagger of young Bruce Willis. His own performance is considerably more tempered – with some reason, considering he plays a hitman in retirement. Both actors, of course, play Joe, a Looper, whose job is executing people sent to be disposed of from the future. When the future iteration of the crime organization Joe works for begins sending back the older versions of the loopers themselves to be disposed of, the young Joe becomes concerned. His fears are realized, when arriving at the location of his next murder, he is confronted with his older self. His moment of hesitation gives his future self time to escape the scene, leaving Joe in a disastrous position. The mafia is, naturally, displeased, and looks to dispose of both of the iterations of their former employee. As Joe seeks refuge with Emily Blunt’s character Sara, a single mother living on a farm, the young family’s seemingly idyllic, though simultaneously twisted lives are thrown into disarray too.

The performances in the film are great across the board. The before-mentioned actors all do their jobs, which is a tall order on its own. Even the supporting cast, however, shine in their scenes – Paul Dano, who has played to my mind exclusively likable characters in the past, is perfectly despicable throughout. Jeff Daniels as the boss is, as any terrifying father figure must be, simultaneously instantly amiable, and bone-chillingly cruel. Even the young Pierce Gagnon shows surprising range at the age of 5. All this is also in large part to the credit of writer-director Rian Johnson. The largely independent filmmaker’s writing really shines in the dialogue, as well as in concisely stating his overarching themes both through words and visuals.

The director has stated numerous times that the movie is about the notion of fixing a problem by finding the right person and killing them. Johnson unflinchingly takes us through to the logical outcome of both a character who has based his life around that policy, and the culture which in the movie seems to have adopted the idea wholeheartedly. Violence, of course, begets more violence, and some of the parts of the movie are beyond shocking (a certain scene of retroactive mutilation is particularly hard to shake).

If you are a fan of innovative science-fiction which is about something more than special effects, while simultaneously being completely thrilling, see Looper at once. Consider yourselves warned, however – if you are the type of person who cannot stand movie violence and simply would prefer to keep that out of their world, hey, it’s ok. We understand. Just be prepared to not understand half of what the rest of us talk about for the rest of the year.

 

Ruby Sparks

Taking on a genre which has been characterized primarily by male wish fulfillment, Ruby Sparks, written by the female lead of the film, Zoe Kazan, instead exposes the truth behind those “dream come true” scenarios. A man creating a woman for himself is a theme that has been explored before, certainly, but never before has that desire been shown to be as potentially emotionally unhealthy as here.

Calvin Weir-Fields, played by Paul Dano, is a young writer, who has attained early success with his first novel, written at the age of 19. He has written some short stories since, but nothing that would live up to the expectation of genius on display in hist first opus. The term “genius” itself haunts him, as he repetitively asks everyone to not use the word around him, fearful of the responsibility that places on him. Of late, he can’t write at all, finding fault with all of his ideas. Suddenly, Calvin has a dream – a girl, who is speaking to him kindly, and even likes his dog, despite his deficiencies. He quickly starts writing about the girl compulsively, and their imaginary relationship blooms into love. Calvin’s life revolves around the experiences he has with the girl while writing his next book – which, one gets the feeling, might not be that good. More than anything, it’s wish fulfillment for the despondent writer. The fulfillment is, of course, only intensified when he wakes up to find his imaginary female character Ruby Sparks to be real, and living in his house.

A series of broad comedic hijinks ensue, but here is where Ruby Sparks sets itself apart: the character of a woman conjured out of a writer’s imagination still has an internal life, which, despite the film focusing on Calvin’s journey, continues when she’s out of the frame. Indeed, that is the central conflict of the film – we realize that deep down Calvin would prefer that she be a character that is solely motivated by her relationship with him, but this is not the case. This puts the character of the young writer in a stark contrast to how we would like to view ourselves; but we, for the most part, recognize this to be psychologically true in ourselves, even if we’d like that to not be the case. Affirmation, the desire to be seen and loved by others in that intimate way can be overpowering, and we often lose control to it. This is portrayed by Calvin eventually succumbing to his desire to “edit” Ruby, his creation, by further writing. The result is a mix of tragedy and comedy, which occasionally becomes almost slapstick.

All of this climaxes in a scene which is profoundly scary, and is a true reflection of the darkest, most selfish part of Calvin’s character. Despite the movie working up to it diligently, it still comes as a shock the character we’d been following takes all of his frustration out on the one person we know he does actually love in what amounts to magical abuse.

Of course, regret and consequences follow, and we are presumably better for the experience. The end is vaguely happy and hopeful, as it should be, because being resigned to a lifetime of depression is frankly not what Calvin deserves, despite his mistakes. The value of the film is that these are mistakes we all make, and we must simply be careful to not repeat them. Maybe watching somebody else make them on the screen can help with that.