In the year 2044, time travel won’t exist. By 2074, however, it will. The practice of time travel will be immediately banned, but it will still be used by high-functioning criminal organizations in order to get rid of people forever. When the mob sends someone back in time, the victim is greeted with the massive blast of a gun called a “blunderbuss.” The men holding the guns are called loopers, hired assassins who specialize in time travel-based executions.
Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper with a bit of a problem. You see, sometimes the future mob wants to terminate the contract of loopers by sending back the loopers’ older selves to be assassinated. Every victim is sent back with a head covering, so the loopers don’t know they killed their future selves until they check. This is called “closing the loop.” The looper no longer works for the mob, and he now has 30 years to live freely before he is kidnapped and sent back in time to be assassinated by himself. The loop is closed, and it goes on forever. Joe’s contract has just been terminated, but he’s made one crucial mistake: He let his older self get away.
Looper is a daring, inventive film that ranks amongst the top science fiction films of recent years. Writer/director Rian Johnson, who debuted with the impressive modern high school-set film noir Brick in 2005, shows a great deal of maturity with this ambitious picture. With an undercurrent of film noir bubbling beneath the surface, Looper is a multi-dimensional experience that is not bound by typical genre expectations. For much of the first act, Joe narrates in a tone reminiscent of hard-boiled detectives from the ’40s and ’50s. The narration is mostly dropped for the rest of the film, which makes sense, given the events that unfold.
Advertisements for Looper were heavy on the action and sci-fi, giving one expectations of high-octane energy and lots of beguiling spectacles. While there is plenty of that to be found in the first and third acts, the meat of the film is heavily grounded in reality, and the events that take place are certainly not the kind of fun things you’d expect from the commercials. Let’s just say when children become involved, things take a turn for the depressing. This doesn’t work against Looper, adding yet another layer of creativity to an already engrossing film, but the genre bending may not entertain those looking for a strictly sci-fi action flick.
When Johnson does play with time travel, it’s an absolute joy to watch. In scenes where older versions of young characters are seen, it’s incredible watching the connections made between the young and the old. Before Joe meets his older self, his friend Seth (Paul Dano) is faced with having his loop closed but allows his older self to escape. As the older Seth runs, he notices scars on his arm in the form of a message telling him to be at a certain location. The implication here that young Seth’s arm has been carved into in order to get the attention of the older Seth. This same tactic is used by Joe later, though it’s done with a clever misdirection. Looper is full of setups and payoffs, the cornerstone of a tight, witty script.
The two Joes are played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, and both are played with impressive craftsmanship. Gordon-Levitt has had a busy year, with Looper being his third of four 2012 films. To this point, Looper marks his strongest performance of the year as a young, junkie assassin dedicated to preserving a good future for himself. Gordon-Levitt is practically unrecognizable in his role, as the makeup department does a superb job of making him look as though he could legitimately be a young Bruce Willis. Not only does the face work for him, but his speech patterns and mannerisms make him a dead ringer for a youthful Willis.
As the older Joe, Bruce Willis gives one of his best performances in recent years. Though working as the same character, Willis must bring to life the knowledge that Gordon-Levitt’s Joe does not have. The older Joe has lived 30 years longer and had a wonderful life with a beautiful wife. When that is taken away from him, he does whatever it takes to try and get it back. The things that the older Joe does in Looper are objectively enough to qualify him as a “bad guy,” but Willis brings emotionality to the role that allows us to see the moral grey areas he’s employing. Throughout Looper, we aren’t sure which Joe we should root for until the very end, and that is a credit to the terrific acting of Gordon-Levitt and Willis.
The second half of Looper is far less entertaining than the first, focusing more on mystery solving than action. We get to know the characters a lot more, but we get very little of the energy injected into us by the first half. You may find yourself bored at points, but something interesting usually comes along every few minutes to get you back into the swing of things. Young Joe spends the second half on a farm protecting a mother (Emily Blunt) and her son from the older Joe, who believes the son will grow up to be the person who terminates Joe’s contract. It’s worth noting that another aspect of this future is that some people have a mutation that grants them relatively weak telekinetic powers. This becomes important later in the film, but I’ll let you figure out how on your own.
There’s so much to talk about in Looper, and I believe that is how you can tell it is a great film. You won’t waste time bickering about the logistics of the time travel (sci-fi fanatics will, but there’s no pleasing them), but you will discuss the clever tricks and thought-provoking themes present throughout. If you want to be a troll and pick apart the concept, you could just ask why the mob doesn’t send people back to a time before humans, or maybe why they don’t kill the person first and then send him or her back in time. But as older Joe tells the younger, he’s not going to discuss time travel because the conversation will eventually devolve into them making diagrams with straws to prove a point. Just enjoy the plot, and stop trying to ruin it for others. You’ll find a good deal of humor in the film as well, breaking up some of the more intense moments. Looper is a complete package: well acted, smartly written, and snappily directed. However, I don’t think it will achieve the instant-classic status of another Gordon-Levitt sci-fi movie: Inception.
My Rating: (8/10)