Rian Johnson has become one of Hollywood’s most well-known directors. The success of The Last Jedi and Knives Out have, in fact, established him as one of the few contemporary filmmakers whose name alone can sell a project. And based on the early reviews of his Knives Out sequel, Glass Onion, it doesn’t seem like Johnson is in danger of losing his in-demand status anytime soon.
10 years ago, however, Johnson was just another director. Prior to 2012, he’d only directed two films, 2005’s Brick and 2008’s The Brothers Bloom, as well as a handful of TV episodes, but Johnson’s profile rapidly grew when Looper hit theaters in September that year. The film, which reunited Johnson with Brick star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, received widespread acclaim and earned nearly $200 million.
With Glass Onion premiering this week, there’s never been a better time to revisit Looper, the film that put Johnson on the path to the success he’s enjoying today.
Set in 2044, Looper follows Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an assassin who works for a crime syndicate based in Kansas City. Known as a looper, Joe is entrusted with the execution and disposal of people sent back to him from a future where getting away with murder is almost impossible. Loopers are well-paid, but they’re eventually forced to “close the loop” by eliminating their older selves, and Joe’s life takes a turn for the worse when he fails to take out old Joe (Bruce Willis).
From there, Looper bounces between Willis and Gordon-Levitt’s dueling perspectives. Through several wordless sequences that are astonishingly well-photographed, we’re shown the life that Willis’ Joe lived before he was unceremoniously sent back to meet his end. Johnson, meanwhile, begins gradually planting the seeds for Looper’s clever if divisive final act, first through Willis’ older Joe and then through the introduction of Sara (Emily Blunt) and Cid (Pierce Gagnon), a mother and son who Gordon-Levitt’s younger Joe unexpectedly crosses paths with.
Johnson occasionally struggles to maintain a cohesive tone, but the writer-director uses Willis and Gordon-Levitt’s separate perspectives to build toward a second-act climax that’s narratively and visually stunning. The sequence features what might be the gnarliest image Johnson has ever produced, which only makes Looper's brutality feel much more impactful and pointed.
The film’s retro Americana sci-fi aesthetic further grounds its story in a world that feels real and lived-in. And, right after establishing a futuristic cityscape, Johnson cleverly moves the majority of Looper to an isolated Kansas farm, a creative decision that not only keeps production costs down but subverts viewer expectations for the high-concept sci-fi film.
Gordon-Levitt’s facial prosthetics can be distracting, but he and Willis have enough of a playful on-screen dynamic to ensure that their few scenes together stand out. While Johnson is rarely one to play too easily into his audience’s hands, he also knows what his viewers hope to see from a Bruce Willis-led action film. The director puts Willis at the center of Looper’s best shootout, allowing him to fully flex his action star muscles.
Even though there are decisions in Looper that remain just as contentious today as they were back in 2012, the film is still one of the most inventive and genuinely thrilling American sci-fi movies of the past 20 years. Its success not only relaunched Johnson’s feature directorial career, but proved he could craft the kind of genre stories that he’s since built his reputation around.
There is no Knives Out or The Last Jedi without Looper. 10 years after its release, the film’s quality explains why.