At a glance, Looper almost feels like an outlier in Rian Johnson’s minute body of work. Unlike Johnson’s flawless debut, Brick, or his disappointing sophomore effort, The Brothers Bloom, Looper operates within a grand, wide-spanning scope that reaches across time; the central story here is intimate, just as in his other films, but it’s set against a backdrop of classical science fiction world-building and the machinations of time travel. We’re not in high school, Montenegro, or Prague anymore, but rather a dystopic vision of the future which we experience at two very different points in history, both populated with hover bikes, mafia button men, rampant poverty, and telekinetic mutations. Robbed of its particulars, Looper shares more in common with films like Akira or Blade Runner than the exploits of Brendan Frye.
Yet the decidedly humanist thrust in both of Johnson’s preceding movies remains intact inside Looper‘s heart, even in a cast composed largely of career murderers– including the “loopers” of the title. As explained to us by Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), our guide in this crumbling world, time travel hasn’t yet been invented in his present, but it will be thirty years hence, whereupon it will become outlawed immediately and used almost exclusively by criminal organizations seeking quick, easy, foolproof body disposal. That’s where Joe comes in; he’s a looper, a mob hitman living in 2044 tasked with eliminating targets sent back in time to him courtesy of his employers, who exist in 2074. The only condition of his job: the target, bound, gagged, and hooded, must not escape. There’s a punchline in there about shooting fish in a barrel, I’m certain, but by the film’s second act the joke is on Joe.
That’s because Joe ends up in the apparently enviable position of facing down his future self during one of his jobs. It’s an inevitable scenario called “closing the loop” that results in a massive payday for the looper– the equivalent of becoming a made man– but Joe Jr hesitates at the very sight of his own aged visage, and Joe Sr (Bruce Willis) makes his getaway. And that’s where Looper truly begins: with Joe literally chasing himself through Kansas City as his present day boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels), sends black-garbed enforcers called Gatmen after both the older and younger looper. How existential can you get? Joe Jr’s mission becomes one of survival, but the parameters involve chasing himself down and killing himself. And as messy as that sounds on paper, it coheres perfectly on-screen thanks to Johnson’s cool, assured direction.
It’s in his technical approach as a filmmaker and his interests as an artist that Looper bears a family resemblance to the rest of his filmography. Both Brick and Bloom use specific genre shells– the former, noir tales, the latter, heist movies– to explore, respectively, the hidden lives of modern high school students and the fractured, dishonest relationship of two brothers; Looper, similarly, ends up being about something more than the sum of its cinematic class, as one might expect of a film where a man gets to literally confront his future face-to-face. At its core, Looper is about growing up and learning to see outside of one’s own problems, about relinquishing self-absorption and finding something more worthy of fighting for than “self”.
That this theme only occurs following the appearance of Joe Sr, come from the future to lecture himself over his self-centered ways, may not be all that surprising; when the older and younger man meet, they naturally dislike each other immediately. The bigger turn here is that the Joe of tomorrow has a purpose in mind for his trip back to the 40’s. I’m reluctant to divulge specifics; the way that Johnson folds these details into one another and carefully deploys them with his expert sense of precision marks one of Looper‘s greatest pleasures. In short, watching the film as blind as possible is vital, so suffice to say that Joe Sr travels to the film’s present day with an agenda in tow and a plan to achieve his goal that can be described as “ethically spotty” at best.
And therein lies one of Looper‘s other remarkable attributes: its unexpected moral complexity. The clash between past and present, which Johnson stages here with crisp, smartly staged action scenes, could have established the film simply as a fun, gritty science fiction lark, but at the conclusion of the puzzle he constructs lies some heavy lifting for his audience to undertake. There aren’t any easy answers to Looper’s myriad lofty questions, and an abundance of uncertainty remains even as the picture fades to white. But that’s appropriate for a film that is so much about uncertainty, self-interest, hypocrisy, and how we unwittingly perpetuate our own cycles of violence.
Looper wraps its ethical dilemmas in a slick package comprised of Johnson’s sterling sense of craft and aesthetics and its much-touted central performances. These days nearly anything starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt is seen as something of an event– save, perhaps, for Premium Rush, a film that went as fast as it came– and the advanced word on his role here revolved heavily around his impression of Bruce Willis. While Gordon-Levitt benefits from prosthetic aid, it’s his affectations that let him slip into the portrayal, from his cadence to the way that he smiles. Willis meets Gordon-Levitt squarely halfway with his own choices, even though he doesn’t have make-up in his corner, and together they create an astonishingly convincing relationship between the two halves of Joe’s existence.
There’s plenty of other strong acting to be found in the film, too– Emily Blunt and Jeff Daniels both add an enormous amount of flavor as a woman on Joe Sr’s hit list and Joe Jr’s present-day boss, respectively. But Looper fashions its identity using a delicate balance between stand-out acting and big ideas. The film wears its genre elements proudly on its sleeve and delights in capitalizing on Willis’ status as an action icon, but like all great science fiction, Looper revels just as much in theme and the questions it poses.