Leave it to genre masher extraordinaire Rian Johnson to come up with one of the greatest time travel movies in cinematic history. After successfully blending a 30s gumshoe drama onto a teen movie in Brick and grafting dark whimsy onto a heist drama in The Brothers Bloom, Johnson makes the perfect fit to take on a conceit generally known for outstandingly lazy writing and a sub-genre in desperate need of a kick in the pants. Looper is anything but lazy, and it definitely breathes now life into its core gimmick. Writing off the potential for logical and scientific pitfalls, Johnson openly admonishes early on that time travel isn’t the point at all in this dazzling mob hitman potboiler that meets up with a family drama partway through with unexpected and deeply satisfying results.
In the year 2044, a wetworker with a blunderbuss named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) carries out contract killings from the mob in the future, waiting in the middle of open Kansas farmland for another target to arrive in a blanket with a sack over their head from 30 years down the road. In that future, time travel exists, but is illegal, and the mob sends back hits to the past so the bodies can be erased without any trace. The employment of these killers, known as “loopers”, only lasts for a short period of time before they eventually have to kill their future selves with a huge payday attached to make sure they’re set for the rest of their days. When it comes time for Joe’s future self (Bruce Willis) to take one in the back of the head, however, he escapes leading Joe to literally go on a search for himself. The search leads him to a farm run by a standoffish woman (Emily Blunt) and a young child, who might just be the reason future Joe escaped in the first place.
Johnson does a perfect job of building a futuristic world that’s equally relatable and wholly original. Not quite Phillip K. Dick and not quite steampunk, Johnson cribs from a fount of different inspirations to ground the story in a sense of reality. Science doesn’t really enter the film, but the fiction itself is extremely sound thanks to one of the most tightly constructed scripts of the year. The actual building of the world takes time, and the stakes are almost tantalizingly made obvious to the audience before the characters can realize the gravity of the situation. He never skimps on plot, and if there’s one fault to be found in the film, it’s that some viewers might just think there’s far too much going on. It’s definitely a form of overkill that Johnson’s dabbling in, but it all fits together quite nicely.
He also gets a chance to show off a side of himself as a filmmaker that he hasn’t previously made know. Johnson can direct one heck of an action sequence, and he can do it in a variety of ways. He can take a gorgeously photographed rooftop chase, a shootout, a stand off, a sonic explosion, or a full on one man siege and make them all feel like they belong in the same world, but were obviously made by a filmmaker who didn’t want to give the audience the same action sequence twice. He also certainly doesn’t shy away from the nastiness of the job at hand, with graphic violence including eviscerations, dismemberments, and point blank shotgun blasts to the head, put to good and effective use instead of making them seem exploitative.
Levitt and Willis also continue great years for the two literally perfectly matched foes, following The Dark Knight Rises and Premium Rush and Moonrise Kingdom, respectively. As the younger Joe, Levitt plays a futuristic YOLO type that’s content to ignore how screwed up the impoverished world around him is, socking away his earnings while simultaneously acting brazenly with regard to his health and well being. He’s an insufferable brat with a talent for all things illegal that needs to learn a natural lesson. As a young version of Willis, Levitt nails the mannerisms and voice of his older counterpart, even if his facial prosthetics are somewhat jarring to look at every now and then.
Our introduction to Willis, on the other hand, comes in a wordless and gorgeously realized sequence that tells us all we need to know about Joe between the botched hit and where he would have ended up. It’s not pretty, but the audience explicitly sees the lessons Joe would have yet to learn. Upon his return and confrontation with his younger self, Willis has years of knowledge and experience to draw on, making him unsympathetic towards the man he used to be. Granted, Willis gets to partake in the lion’s share of action here (doing far more exciting stuff than he got to do in Expendables 2 just over a month ago), but he also has the harder role to play. Young and old Joe have considerably different motivations and endgames in mind, but while the young man seems content on killing himself (and who at his age doesn’t really do that already?), the older man comes with the intention to preserve lives in the future that mean more to him than his own well being. And by the end, even he might turn out to be wrong.
The supporting cast also comes stacked with strong workers. Emily Blunt plays almost like a reformed and not much older version of Joe, blending a harshly realistic point of view with a motherly instinct that simply can’t be turned off no matter how much she tries to stay battle hardened. Also on hand and assisting nicely are Paul Dano, as a young looper who essentially tells us all we need to know about the characters, and Jeff Daniels as the chief mob heavy from the future who oversees the entire operation.
The twists and turns in Looper are almost magical in terms of how well they work. There’s a trail of breadcrumbs throughout the film that attentive viewers might be able to piece together, but figuring out the actual secrets and specifics behind the film proves to be nearly impossible. Some things can be guessed, but overall Johnson has created a film that’s more unpredictable than American cinema usually gets. It’s a gutsy and uncompromising genre film that will be hailed as a classic staple by many who see it. Films like Looper come around so infrequently, and it’s doubtful that anyone could have seen into the future to know it would have turned out this great.