Nominated for Nothing: Why the Academy should go back in time to honor 'Looper'
Just about every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars. The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Breathless, King Kong, Casino Royale, Touch of Evil, Caddyshack, Mean Streets, The Big Lebowski — the Academy has a long history of overlooking comedies, action movies, horror flicks, hard-boiled genre pics, artsy foreign films, and documentaries that aren’t about World War II. This year, we’ll be taking a closer look at films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.
The Film: Looper, writer-director Rian Johnson’s head-twisty sci-fi tale of Joe, a mob assassin (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who kills marks sent back from the future — until one day his future self (played by Bruce Willis) zaps back from the past as Joe’s latest mark. Then things get really freaky.
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: Though Looper won wide acclaim, a WGA nod for Rian Johnson’s screenplay, and a healthy $166 million worldwide gross, it could be easy just to fob off the Academy’s disinterest in the film on the fact that it’s a sci-fi thriller. Historically, that’s not a genre that’s won many awards season plaudits, but in just the last few years, Oscar has been happy to smile on critically acclaimed sci-fi thrillers like Inception, District 9, and Children of Men, all of which won multiple nods, including Best Picture (for the first two) and Best Screenplay (for all three, either original or adapted).
None of those films, however, also dealt with time travel, an inherently paradoxical sub-genre of sci-fi that defies even the most rigorous storytelling logic. Which is to say, any movie that grapples with time travel as its central storytelling conceit is at least in some small part a silly undertaking. In fact, the only time travel sci-fi movie in the last 40 years to win any significant Academy love is 1985’s Back to the Future, a film that celebrated its own silliness rather than try to ignore it.
Still, there was no room for a nod for the film’s high-wire makeup designed by Kazuhiro Tsuji, transforming Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s face into an uncannily not-quite-right-but-somehow-totally-right match of Bruce Wills’ face? I mean, if the pounds of obvious latex used on Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock deserved a Best Makeup and Hairstyling nod, certainly the much more subtle work in Looper did too.
Why History Will Remember It Better Than Amour: It’s true that Looper‘s time travel logic doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. But to paraphrase Willis’ Older Joe from the film, it’s not about time travel. Instead, Rian Johnson uses the conceit of time travel to explore a What If that practically everyone has entertained at least once in their lives: What if I could confront the younger, dumber me and fix the mistakes that have made my life a total ruin of wasted potential and unrealized expectations? (Or perhaps a sentiment that’s a twinge less extreme.)
Asking for a do-over is a thoroughly human-scaled question, and rarely has a feature film confronted it with such surprising style and wit and pathos and effing cool-as-hell set pieces. Gordon-Levitt and Willis turn in performances that echo each other while also charting their own distinctive courses, allowing us to trace how the cocksure junkie Younger Joe could become the world-weary, desperate Older Joe while still seeing each man as unique characters unto themselves. (BEWARE: SPOILERS FOLLOW from here on.)
Then the film shifts into its second and third acts, set on a remote farm owned by Sara (Emily Blunt), a single mother who watches warily and lovingly over her young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon, delivering a mesmerizing, Oscar-worthy performance at just five years old). We realize over time that Cid is (possibly) destined to become the all-powerful Rainmaker, whose enormous telekinetic abilities allow him to single-handedly take over all the major crime syndicates in, well, the world. The implication is that eventually, Cid could become a kind of sci-fi antichrist, ruling despotically over all of humanity, though for Older Joe, ordering the death of his beloved is crime enough.
But Sara is determined to chart a different course for Cid, to make his life better because she was there to help guide him to use his power responsibly. And that’s when Looper begins burrowing into a second issue, one much more concrete than a fanciful sci-fi concoction: The importance of parents, and of a safe and happy childhood. We already know Younger Joe was essentially orphaned when he was not much older than Cid, and fell into the insidious guidance of Jeff Daniels’ mob boss. As Younger Joe gets to know Cid while he’s holed up with Emily, awaiting Older Joe’s arrival, we know Younger Joe sees himself in Cid far more than he ever recognized himself in Older Joe’s single-minded determination to find and kill the Rainmaker. When Older Joe finally does arrive, Younger Joe realizes that he’s caught in a kind of literal feedback loop: Older Joe killing Sara in front of Cid, which drives Cid to become the Rainmaker, who kills Older Joe’s beloved, which sends Older Joe back in time to launch the cycle all over again. So Younger Joe kills himself, killing Older Joe, and breaking the cycle.
Like I said before, it doesn’t make perfect sense. But that’s not the point. Because Younger Joe is really breaking the cycle of abandonment, poverty, and crime that he lived through, and so many like him continue to live through, so that Cid can have the chance at a life neither Joe ever got. Rian Johnson’s film is a crackling entertainment and superlative sci-fi even with its wonky temporal slight-of-hand. That it also works as a powerful parable that resonates with our lives right now is what will likely make this film last for decades to come.