Time travel has become such an abused cinematic conceit that it’s thrilling when a movie actually does something with it. Instead of using the concept as a lazy starting point or an uninspired plot crutch, Looper teases out the existential anxieties that are inherent to the idea of journeying from one period in time to another. Nothing quite excites and disturbs us as the prospect of time travel. Looper exploits that tension for all its worth.
I hesitate to jump right into basic plot summary, as one of the (few) weaknesses of Looper is its own reliance on voiceover to set the groundwork. But here goes: some 30 years in the future, a man named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works as a “looper,” a hired gun who waits in a field for a handcuffed victim with a bag over his head to materialize out of thin air. This person, who is immediately shot dead by Joe, has been sent back by mobsters of the future, when time travel has been invented and outlawed and is now controlled by organized crime.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom), Looper offers one of those Goldilocks visions of the future: not too out there, not too familiar, but just right. Hover bikes are seen here and there, but vintage Mazda Miatas are actually more in fashion. A genetic mutation has led to telekinetic abilities in some people, but considering it mostly allows them to float coins, no one is that impressed. Illegal drugs have advanced – they’re taken as eye drops – but the cycle of desperate highs and lows remains as despairing as ever.
Joe is caught in this cycle. He has few qualms about pulling the trigger on the sorry souls who show up in the field, but maybe that’s because he’s doing those drops to assuage his conscience. Either way, the question of culpability becomes more pertinent one day when an unmasked man materializes before him. Looking into his eyes, Joe recognizes himself (though older, balder and looking suspiciously like Bruce Willis).
Thanks to Johnson’s light touch, the movie nimbly tiptoes between action schlock and intellectual pretension. The script is stuffed with sharp dialogue, as when one time traveler offers this real-estate advice: “I’m from the future. You should go to China.” There is also wit in the visuals. During one shoot-out, a neon sign in the shape of an arrow functions as a morbidly comic touch amidst the falling bodies and spilling blood. Looper is loose – it goes where it wants when it wants without worrying too much about the details – yet always anchored by the existential angst at its core. (And there are even touches of Cronenbergian horror – as when wounds suffered by a looper appear on the body of his time-traveling doppelganger – to remind you of that angst in case you start having too much fun.)
I’ll confess I’m a sucker for high concepts such as this. Too often, though, they remain just that – a Hollywood studio pitch that never really gets fleshed out on the screen. Looper could be described as Back to the Future with a dash of Memento and a lot more guns, but the movie becomes so much more. As Willis’ Joe escapes and Gordon-Levitt’s Joe hunts him down to save his own skin, unsettling questions start to percolate in the back of your brain: What if I somehow encountered an earlier or later version of myself? Which one would be the real me? If I had to choose, which one would more deserve to live? Much of Looper seems to be riffing on Hegel’s idea of identity in difference. Only with time travel. And those guns.
Despite all its action, one of Looper’s best scenes is a simple conversation in a diner, in which the two Joes face off and each tries to convince the other of his right to exist (“This is my life now,” the younger one insists). As they argue, it’s like a showdown between two mirrors, in which variations of the same image echo back and forth, with endless possibilities and no apparent end. For their part, the actors are more than up for the challenge of this doppelganger game. Despite the intensive makeup and prosthetic work that went into making Gordon-Levitt look like a young Willis, it’s the little mannerisms the actor employs that convinces you they’re one and the same. In an early scene in which Joe is being chewed out by a superior, Gordon-Levitt gives that disdainful, sideways glance – the one that’s just this side of smug – that almost all of Willis’ characters share, from Butch Coolidge to John McClane.
Ironically, it’s the real Willis – as older Joe – who isn’t smug here. After a life of killing and now facing the threat of being killed, Joe is hardly a hotshot, but instead a man who will do anything to survive. Of course, his survival means the younger Joe’s demise, as any looper who botches an assignment is as good as dead. And therein lies the challenge at the movie’s knotty heart: to what lengths would we go to protect the self?
Does Looper find a loophole for this predicament? I wouldn’t dream of answering that, but I will say that the story takes an unexpected turn when the younger Joe seeks refuge in the farmhouse of a protective woman (Emily Blunt) and her telekinetic son (Pierce Gagnon). Revealing more wouldn’t be fair to a film that takes you to more places, times and ideas than you’d ever expect. At one point, another character from the future scoffs at the gangster getup the loopers wear and says, “The movies that you’re dressing like are just copying other movies. Be new.” Looper meets that challenge, and then some.