Looper takes place in a dystopian near future. In 2044, poverty and crime are rampant, and control of everything has been taken over by gangsters. Time travel doesn’t exist yet, but it will three decades later, and it will be highly illegal, not well understood, and only used by criminals. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is so-called “looper,” an very specialized assasin (executioner, really) whose job it is to go to a pre-established location at a given time, and execute hog-tied, gagged and hooded persons that are zapped back from 30-years in the future as soon as they arrive in the present. The looper then disposes of the body and collects his reward, bars of silver that are sent back with the person to be executed. At some point, every looper knows that the crime bosses in the future may decide to “close the loop” by sending the looper’s future self back to be killed. For this special killing, the looper is rewarded in gold bars and released from any further obligations or duties. All of this is revealed in the movie’s first few minutes–much of it through voice-over exposition–so when Joe find himself staring at his future self (Bruce Willis), it’s not at all a surprise, but entirely expected. (If you’ve seen the Looper trailer, you know this is coming, but this is really all premise, not spoiler.) But, when it does happen, something’s gone awry. Old Joe isn’t bound, gagged and hooded as expected, and this gives him just enough time to cold-cock his younger self, escape his fate, and begin pursuit of his own future-changing agenda in the past/present. Mayhem, needless to say, ensues.
It all gets complicated, but it works. Johnson’s movies are full of twists and turns, just as they are mishmashes of genres and styles. (Brick, his debut was a film noir set in a California high school; The Brother’s Bloom was an international con-man caper that borrowed from French new wave.) Here, there are elements of the hit man movie, Philip K. Dick sci-fi, a little bit of gunslinger western, and maybe just a few nods and winks to Terminator and Back to the Future. Though the first half is packed with action sequences (and there’s a bit more at the end), there are also moments in the middle where the film breathes, as Joe finds himself, not by mere happenstance, on a farm outside the city with Sara (Emily Blunt), a strong-willed women with a past as well as a precocious child. Johnson also makes good use of his settings, not just for atmosphere, but also theme: the depraved squalor of the crime-ridden city, the false calm and promise of a better life found in the retro-style roadside diner, the bucolic and domestic farm house where Joe stays with Sara, awaiting the the movie’s inevitable conclusion. There’s a really well formed ethical and philosophical symbol at the heart of the movie that emerges at the end. It would be giving away too much to explain it here, except to say it was handled well.
Looper is an intense movie. It’s dark and brutal, but also full of interesting moral dilemmas. The time-travel element is adeptly executed. This is one of those movies that sticks with you as you leave the theater. Though it would be wrong to say the movie is confusing, I’m guessing some people will want to see it again just to sort it all out. As with any time-travel movie, there are paradoxes that can’t be completely explained. But the plot does a good enough job of giving you just enough information to make the story satisfying.
The movie looks great, and not just “great for an independently produced movie,” but really great. We get just enough of the futuristic stuff–3-D holigraphic displays and hovering vehicles–to create a credible world that is familiar, yet exotic. Gordon-Levitt is given make-up and prosthetics to make his facial features more closely match those of Bruce Willis. To be honest, I found this to be a little bit distracting. But Gordon-Levitt does such a good job mimicking Willis’ mannerisms that the casting works well enough. The special effects are executed well and are never a distraction.
Johnson gets very strong performances from his cast, particularly Emily Blunt. One of the strengths of Johnson, an auteur who writes and directs his own original material, is creating characters with depth. Each of the characters in Looper has clear (and competing) motivations that propel their intersecting story arcs. The trio at the heart of the story, Joe, Old Joe and Sara, are on a collision course from the beginning, and everything plays out in an interesting, and not always predictable, way. Jeff Daniels is also remarkable as Abe, a gangster sent from the future to oversee the loopers. I also liked Kid Blue (Noah Segan), a “gat man”/enforcer in Abe’s gang who helps his boss keep everyone in line. Kid Blue is strangely obsessed with winning Abe’s approval, and his quest to do so provides an interesting C-story, as well as some well-timed, darkly comic relief. Johnson also manages to coax one of the best performances I’ve seen from a child actor (Pierce Gagnon, who plays Sara’s boy, Cid) since Haley Joel Osment saw dead people.
One note of caution for those who are queasy about cinematic violence: this movie carries a solid R rating. There is pervasive and graphic violence, strong language, and a fair bit of nudity (though no graphic sex).