“Looper,” by director Rian Johnson is a modest science fiction story set in a much larger futuristic world that engages on both levels as a mind-twisting tale of dystopic prophecy, and a compelling story of realization and reflection upon the mistakes and choices one makes and how they shape our future. The film sketches out a comprehensive picture of a crumbling future where the discovery of time travel 30 years from then has given rise to a kind of present day cleaner for the future mobs business, and then proceeds to narrow it’s focus until we see how this rough society shapes and motivates these “Loopers” to rise above it, even though they have to agree to a very specific clause that ensures that their end is a violent one; they are required to kill their future selves when their contract is up.
One such self-terminating assassin is Joe, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who lives his life with indifference as he takes out targets from the future with his trademark “blunderbuss” shotgun and saves the silver bars his marks come with for a time when he can leave Kansas city. At night he’s on top of the world along with his fellow Looper Seth (Paul Dano, endearingly hapless with only a touch of the usual over-the-top pride) as they live the decadent life few can afford, but in the remaining time he has a solitary existence as he bides his time until his own Loop arrives and he can get out of the business. But when Old Joe (Bruce Willis) finally arrives, Joe hesitates, and pays the price when his future self gets the drop on him and escapes, putting a target on his head from his boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels, laid back, and entertaining blase’ about the mechanics of time travel) and pursued by the head of the elite “Gat Man” Kid Blue (Noah Segan, playing more intense, and ambition-driven, almost pathetically so)
The trope of a man fighting and chasing a double would be perfect fodder for any action movie, but those who have seen Johnson’s original debut “Brick” know that simply making a whiz bang futuristic action film is only the tip of the iceberg. When Joe and Old Joe meet up in a cafe the film becomes a character examination, contrasting the actions and history of past and future. “I don’t want to talk about any time travel shit” says Willis, and it’s true, the film is more interested in showing the kind of literal self-reflection that we have often imagined, with young Joe’s self-serving and wet-behind-the-ear attitude a hidden shame of Old Joe’s, while his potential life with all it’s happiness is a frustration to young Joe.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is quietly compelling in the role, which requires makeup that changes his features to more closely resemble Willis’s with a stony brow and a voice inflection that is a striking match for Willis’s haggard growl. We see him as both a morally compromised killer, but also as a kid who seems to be floating through life as if in a dream, living only for the future but seemingly unaware of what that future actually means. It’s his later relationship with a young mother named Sara (Played by Emily Blunt with haunting eyes that disguise staggering will and determination) and her young but inquisitive son Cid (Pierce Gagnon,) that finally cements his desire for something meaningful in the present.
In addition, Bruce Willis repeats his “12 Monkeys” role and plays a man from the future possessing painful knowledge he must bear, but the nature of his younger selves history give him greater emotional baggage he must face when he comes meets with figures from his past. Though the role requires that he must play to type as a badass anti-hero, it’s his touches of sorrow and determination that stick out in the role, including the aforementioned diner scene where he reflects on his younger self with a kind of amused self-frustration.
The music for the film must also be commended, with composer Nathan Johnson assembling a large variety of both futuristic chase scores and quietly brooding melodies that contrast nicely with the scenes of Loopers disposing of targets. It even features a nicely old fashioned blues tune whose sweet heartbreak nicely underlines Joe’s loneliness and enhances the final powerful images.
“Looper” can be argued as another time travel film whose very mechanics necessitate it will inevitably circle around and bite it’s own narrative when viewers try and unroll it in their heads, but it succeeds thanks to way the film gradually moves away from the time travel shenanigans and to Joe, both past and future. With this the film becomes a rather personally story of a kid without direction who meets a stranger who is a warning to the dangers of living in the future and not the present, and ultimately a lesson that cycles of violence that don’t stop until they’ve looped back around to the source. Or until someone changes it.