Time travel never makes much sense—ever—but Looper handles it much better than most. The trick, it turns out, is simply to acknowledge that it’s crazy, that you’d need to diagram out the forking timelines if you truly wanted to keep track of it all, and even then the paradoxes would overwhelm you if you insisted on thinking about it too hard. Better not to, we’re told a few times. Accept the rules that you’re given, and go with it. So we do.
And it’s worth it because Looper also nails the really crucial element of time-travel storytelling: the emotional logic. The actual mechanics might be nonsense, but the emotional connections between past and present and future ring true and resonate powerfully through all the explosions and gunshots of what is, besides, an exceptionally well made action movie—all the more exceptional for being able to finesse all that goofy time travel stuff.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, a specialized killer for the mob. Time travel hasn’t been invented yet, Joe explains, but it will be in about thirty years. Then it’s highly illegal, but criminal organizations use it to get rid of people, sending them back to Joe’s time, bound and hooded, to be immediately shot dead by a waiting executioner, a looper, who takes his payment off the body. The catch is that because time travel is so illegal and the loopers literally know where the bodies are buried, those future mob bosses don’t want the loopers around in their present, so eventually they send back the old looper to be killed by his younger self, thus “closing the loop.” Sure, a looper might be tempted to let his older self run free, but the bosses have ways—horrible, gruesome ways—of dealing with that contingency, and besides, the young, reckless, drug-addicted loopers can hardly imagine their lives in another thirty years. Why not kill the future and enjoy the present in a haze of wealth and decadence?
Unfortunately for Joe, his future self isn’t very accommodating. When Old Joe (Bruce Willis) shows up on his kill sheet, mysteriously unhooded, the younger Joe hesitates for just a moment, and Old Joe manages to escape. From there, Old Joe violently pursues his own agenda, Joe desperately tries to track him down and finish the job, and the contemporary mob, led by Abe (Jeff Daniels), tries to catch them both. Eventually, all paths lead to an isolated farm where Sara (Emily Blunt), a fiercely protective mother, lives with her strange little boy, Cid (Pierce Gagnon). Who they are and how they’re connected—or not—with Joe(s) becomes the crux of the whole story.
That’s a complicated, genre-steeped premise, but Rian Johnson seems to specialize in finding sharp, fresh angles on a familiar genre and creating something that feels special and vibrant and new. Brick, his debut, is a moody, stylish neo-noir set, improbably but somehow perfectly, at a suburban high school, and The Brothers Bloom, though not as cohesive as its predecessor, is a vibrant, spirited caper movie that finds a curiously tender way to conceive of grifting. Looper is probably slicker than both, but it, too, features a marvelously literate screenplay, with inventive setting-specific jargon and expressive character-revealing dialogue. A tense mid-film meeting of the Joes at a remote diner is a particular highlight, with the younger and the older man unable to find common ground despite the fact that they are, at least in some manner of speaking, the same person. Generational conflict has rarely been quite so surreal.
The brilliance of that scene also owes much, of course, to the actors playing the Joes. Gordon-Levitt has been heavily made up to look like a younger version of today’s Willis, but the effects aren’t necessary (and are, in fact, a bit distracting, at least at first). After all, Willis is an iconic actor, particularly in action movies, so Gordon-Levitt (probably the more versatile of the two) can vividly evoke him by re-creating his sidelong glances, the wry cadences of his voice, and, most especially, his crooked smirk. Both he and Willis sell the mutual antagonism with coolly obstinate determination. The effect is almost uncanny in spots.
And indeed, Johnson finds numerous ways—some subtle, some delightfully splashy—to toy with the uncanniness of his story. From the playful handling of the doubled Joes, to Gagnon’s broody yet undeniably childlike performance as the enigmatic Cid, to the mob’s sick methods of pulling in a runaway former looper, to the quick-flicker appearance of a time traveler in a field of drying corn, Looper is a thrill—and, hopefully, what will finally push Johnson out to the wider audience he deserves.