As a kid who grew up on Star Trek, I know first-hand the benefits and pitfalls of a time travel plot. Trek was often light-hearted about its implementation, almost to the point of using it as a silly contrivance, but other forms of the fiction dare to be more adventurous. If investigated too deeply, time travel can truly bury the audience in mind-fuckery. The most drastic point I can think of would be Shane Carruth’s ultra-indie flick Primer, in which the time you spend inside the time machine translates to how far back in time you go. That film explores how one manages paradoxes and the multitude of timelines you create when you make multiple trips, which is havoc for something as elegant as a narrative. While not quite the brain freeze that Primer was, thankfully, Looper engages that kind of deep, exploratory time travel with incredible flare and gobs of delicious violence.
In the opening shot, Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is listening to an audiobook, trying to learn French. He stands at the edge of a corn field with a large steampunk-ish shotgun, staring down a large white tarp. Suddenly, a figure appears with a sack draped over his head, screaming. As quickly as he appears, Joe pulls the trigger and he’s gone. Joe is a looper: an assassin hired to take care of the future’s trash. “Time travel hasn’t been invented, yet,” he says, and in the future where it does, it’s highly illegal, utilized only by the most crooked of crime syndicates, the ones that finance loopers like Joe. When he’s not waiting out in the fields for his next target (and subsequent payday, as each is bundled with bricks of silver as a ‘thank you’), he’s living a high-life of avarice. His crew is based in a dystopian Kansas City, a place that probably never received Google Fiber, and lead by an unshaven Jeff Daniels, a mobster sent from the future to build the looper syndicate.
But if you’ve seen the trailers, you know that eventually the thirty-years-older version of Joe (Bruce Willis) suddenly appears and Joe finds himself overwhelmed at the thought of having to kill himself. The act of doing so is called ‘closing the loop’ and is the future’s way of informing you that your contract is over and you now have thirty years to live, so enjoy the extravagant payday we’ve sent back with, uh, you. But, what happens when you don’t close the loop? What happens when the older version of yourself is now wandering around free in the same timeline as you are? Well, as we see happen to his friend Seth, the most gruesome things possible. This makes for a clever mechanic as violence inflicted on the younger Joe reappears on the older Joe.
When I began writing this review, I’d considered the byline “Inception, Without The Explanation”. While Nolan’s dream caper is incredible, his over-explanation of its mechanics leaves little to the imagination, and definitely less to discuss after the fact. Rian Johnson, who boggled my mind with the high school-themed noir Brick, adapts the flashy aspects of Nolan’s adventure, but leaves some mystery in the Looper universe. Any good time travel plot is intricate, built like any puzzle, and Johnson gives us both answers and further questions.
I simply can’t remember a headier film that Bruce Willis has starred in. Gordon-Levitt has stated that he spent six hours a day in makeup to look like Bruce, but it’s obvious from the film that he went further in replicating Willis’ mannerisms as well. It’s uncanny how he plays Joe as something of his own invention and a clever bridge to Willis’ portrayal. These two Joes are in direct conflict because they’re intensely arrogant, but for widely different reasons that I won’t spoil here. Understanding their vastly different motivations makes us believe that they are thirty years apart, rather than variations of the same character. Just for mentioning: Emily Blunt appears as a gun-toting farm owner (there are lots of guns in this downtrodden future) and eventual love interest. Again, I’m skirting spoilers.
If the film didn’t tap the breaks half-way through to focus on the older Joe’s mission, this would probably be a perfect film. Rare is an exciting adventure on film like this because so few filmmakers have the skill or clout to make such a complex tale work. Rian Johnson did it. Looper is a stylish and unique experiment in time travel that simply won’t be bested for the foreseeable future.
Well, hopefully not thirty years.