At the beginning of Looper, murder has never been so brusque. A young man waits in an open field, and when another man appears out of thin air, the young man shoots him without a moment’s hesitation. The speed is startling, but that’s because we don’t yet understand the elaborate world created by writer and director Rian Johnson. Set in 2044, Johnson’s future is one where death can be preordained. It’s almost irrecoverable, until one man has an agenda that goes beyond the space/time continuum. Johnson’s latest is brainy entertainment, raising intriguing moral questions as the bullets and buckshot fly.
The shooter from the opening scene is Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and he works as a special kind of assassin. Time travel does not exist in Joe’s time, but it does in the future. Crime syndicates from the future send people into the past so “loopers” like Joe can kill/dispose of the bodies. It’s easy work — Joe’s gun makes it impossible for him to miss his target — and bodies from the future have no trace in the present. Still, the job comes with one major catch: all loopers must eventually “close their loop” by murdering the future version of themselves.
When Joe’s friend Seth (Paul Dano) cannot close his loop, he faces some truly horrible consequences. Time travel logic has never been this ghastly. This gives Joe time to think, so when Old Joe (Bruce Willis) appears before him, he knows he must evade the mob after he botches the hit. In a flash-forward, we learn more about Old Joe. I won’t give away the details, except to say he does not travel back in time by force. He has an important reason to encounter his younger self. Johnson slowly unearths Old Joe’s agenda, as well as its sinister implications for the present and future.
There’s an important scene in Looper where the Joes sit down for breakfast. Joe asks about his future, but Old Joe is dismissive. “This time travel crap,” he says, “it’ll fry your brain like an egg.” The line is instructive for Joe as well as the audience. Johnson (correctly) understands it’s impossible to grasp a paradox fully, yet his script builds on its premise while moving the plot forward. Like the best science fiction, Johnson weaves big concept ideas with several smaller details. Many of the cars, for example, are beat-up hatchbacks with solar panels on the hood. Jeff Daniels is memorable as Abe, a criminal from the future who monitors all looper activity; his soothsaying one-liners are funny without making a fuss about it.
Looper is about as high-concept as it gets, but Johnson uses a classic noir framework to ease us into his world. Joe acts and speaks like a world weary noir hero, the kind who uses his cynicism like a protective shield. Trouble finds him when he trusts the wrong people. Joe forms a slow friendship with Sara (Emily Blunt), a farmer who reluctantly takes him in. In the tradition of women in noir, neither Joe nor the audience knows what to make of her. Johnson seamlessly blends the two genres so that we think we can guess what happens. The most satisfying part about Looper is how Johnson keeps the surprises coming, but we never get the feeling that we’re being cheated. His direction and attention to writing are too fine-tuned and sharp for that. His attention waivers when he dwells on violence — Old Joe spends entirely too much time with automatic weaponry — so Looper is its most thrilling when it gets our mental gears churning.
The first thing anyone will notice about Joseph Gordon-Levitt is how he doesn’t quite look like himself. Through prosthetics, his brow juts out and the cleft of his nose is less sharp. The make-up accomplishes more than making him look like Bruce Willis. His new face gives him character, and makes him look a little bit dumb. It’s an important decision because it gives Gordon-Levitt a chance to disappear into his role so that he can imbue Joe with heft. The performance is terrific without being showy; he delivers his hard-boiled lines with a cracked voice, one that suggests reserves of dormant pain. Willis and Gordon-Levitt resist the urge to imitate each other. Instead, Johnson plays us up their differences so we can understand who these men are, and how experience shapes them.
For its final half hour, Looper pits the two Joes against one another. Johnson puts them in an ingenious moral dilemma: we understand what they are thinking, and why they’re at such an impasse. The implications of the dilemma is how the movie transcends its genre to become something more thoughtful about capital “B” Big questions. The conflict between the Joes is also a conflict between fate and destiny, nature and nurture, love and hope. From how it ends, it is tempting to think Johnson only subscribes to one side, but consider what each man has to lose. There is sympathy for both of them, so the only villain in Looper is time travel itself.