Looper: The Standout Star the Trailers Didn’t Show

The first loop’s for Bruce Willis. The second for Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But the hidden gem of Rian Johnson’s new sci-fi thriller is the young Pierce Gagnon – the unshakable telekinetic child monster

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Alan Markfield/TriStar Pictures

WARNING: Major, comprehensive spoilers ahead

Going in, I knew I was predisposed to love Looper. I am enamored with sci-fi time travel mysteries (in fact, I have dubbed the time travel enigma Primer to be one of the most underrated sci-fi visions ever filmed). I consider Bruce Willis one of the very best action heroes. And from the very first moments of his first film (Brick), Rian Johnson has convinced me that he is one of the more innovative and ingenious young directors in Hollywood.

But beyond all that, what surprised — and delighted — me most about Looper was its willingness to wander and explore; the sharp right turns in its plotting that sent this neo-noir veering off in new directions. In hindsight, its daring choices become even more impressive — that a bit of existential time travel philosophy would rapidly morph into a manhunt thriller, then a forsaken romance and finally telekinetic horror fest. I have a feeling that Sony’s marketing department must have been dumbfounded: Do we market this movie to the science nerds, the action buffs or the late-night horror crew?

(MOREDirector Rian Johnson on Looper’s True Meaning)

In the lead up to opening weekend, I heard from friends who favor all those genres, about whether they should see Looper. My reply: Come for the time travel, stick around for the resurrection of John McClane, but be prepared to walk away with a vision of one of the creepiest kids in movie history. Sure, it’s a jumbled, chaotic blend — but Looper is a movie willing to take big bets and wild swings. After a summer of formulas and marketing plots, I’d rather spend my $10 on a movie like this, proud of its wild excess.

Which brings us to Johnson’s circular, choose-your-own-adventure structure. The first time Bruce Willis travels back in time, we see what happens when he survives Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s high-tech shotgun blast. The second time, he gets wasted in short order. But the third time, the two Joes — one young, one old — start to work together. And for a long while, I thought the focus of this third trip around the bend was their collaboration: What would happen if the two aided each other, instead of trying to ditch/kill one another. It was only later that I began to fully understand: This third trip wasn’t about Joe at all, it was about Cid.

(READ: TIME’s Richard Corliss reviews Looper)

Old Joe knows Cid as the Rainmaker — the ruthless, all-powerful kingpin of the future who is in the process of closing loops when his crew kills Joe’s wife. Young Joe initially meets Cid as the street-wise child of the woman he’s trying to protect from his alter ego. But the longer Young Joe stays at her home, the more the reality starts to sink in, that Cid is the target that Old Joe’s been searching for. Here, as a young psychic monster, Cid is just the insecure boy with earth-shattering tantrums. But Old Joe knows, and Young Joe is quickly convinced, that when an older Cid learns how to channel these mind powers to attack his enemies, there will be no stopping him.

The two full-out tantrums that we see — first as Cid topples down the stairs, freaks out, and then proceeds to levitate his would-be assassin, obliterating his body, and then second as he retaliates against Old Joe for grazing his face with a bullet — are thoroughly terrifying surprises. And they represent such sudden shifts in tone and storyline that Johnson essentially risks the flow of his film on this one eerie character, capable of crunching corpses with a single thought.

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I’m betting that what you think of Looper largely depends on what you think of young Pierce Gagnon. The actor behind Logan on One Tree Hill, who also appeared as a traumatized child in The Crazies (clearly his parents don’t have a problem casting him in R-rated material), effectively steals the show from a vengeful Willis and a self-absorbed Gordon-Levitt. When Cid is wounded near the end of the film and starts screaming, lifting his mother, both Joes and a fair bit of Earth into the sky, I found it to be one of the most unpredictable movie showdowns of the year. Forget our grown-up antiheroes with guns, it’s all about the little scowling bundle of terror. Here is a boy of hidden powers, a mother prepared to sacrifice her own happiness to give her child a better future, an old man out for blood and his younger half willing to kill himself if it makes the world a better place, all suspended in the air. Beyond time travel, the mafia shootouts, the sex — all of it now hangs on the unstable emotions of an adolescent.

Cid is a daring plot device, one that makes the story less about Joe’s future than about a future villain’s past. Gagnon holds his own, whether he’s welcoming Joe to the farm, dismissing his mother, being fearless in front of armed strangers or losing himself to a meltdown. In the process of shifting the playing field away from the time travel machines and the dark futuristic alleys, Johnson finds a way to defy the genre and upend our expectations. While the marketing teams may have hyped this as a cat-and-mouse thriller, it’s ultimately a tale of a mother’s love, and one man’s sinking realization that the only way to better the world is to take himself out of the equation. In killing himself, Joe proves himself, and the proof of his valor is to be found in a soothed Cid, being coddled by his fearless mother. What a fantastically haunting epilogue.

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