It can be tempting to write off Rian Johnson as a writer-director who just likes mashing things up. His feature films — Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and now Looper — have shown remarkable skill at marrying two seemingly incongruous worlds and making them feel totally at home nested within each other. Brick wasn’t just a high school drama masquerading as mystery, or vice versa; it was both at once. Yet he’s able to pull this off because, as much as he loves mingling disparate genres, the mingling is never the point. He’s more than just a gimmick. Johnson is profoundly interested in character and consequence, like good storytellers in every genre, and he’s specifically drawn again and again to tales of people who buy and sell bullshit and whose biggest liability is believing their own hype. Joseph Gordon-Levitt anchored Brick as Brendan, a high schooler on the trail of a missing ex who twisted the truth as much as the people he was chasing, so it feels right for Gordon-Levitt to return for Looper, playing a man whose hunt for truth puts his own existence in jeopardy. Looper is many things — a gripping action movie, an smart sci-fi story, a heartbreaking time-travel lullaby — but most of all it’s about a man watching himself go through a process most of us take for granted: he has to decide what he wants to believe, about the world and about himself, and then live with the consequences.
Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is a looper, a hired gun working for the mob in Kansas, 2044. In his future, organized crime has come up with a pretty nifty way to cover up illegal activity: they send their victims back in time, at which point they’re promptly killed by loopers like Joe. When the mafia men of the future want to end a looper’s contract — when they want to “close the loop” — they simply send the 30-years-older version of the killer back to be shot by his younger self. Being a looper is a suicide mission, only with the added hell of watching yourself die and knowing you can’t change it; knowing, in fact, that you have to go through with things to keep the universe from going haywire. Time-travel movies are all about regaining control over your life in major course-corrective ways, but the pleasing twist of Looper is that being involved with time travel means surrendering that control. Joe spends his days interacting with the physics and philosophy that have launched a thousand movies and stoned dorm-room conversations, and he’s utterly unhappy because of it.
In one of the film’s many wonderful diversions from its thematic forerunners, Looper is a time-travel story where we don’t actually do any time traveling. The film is set and anchored in Kansas in the year 2044, and the only part of the film that deals with the timestream in a visual way is a stunning montage showing one character aging from the film’s “present” to the future c. 2070, as well as a few scattered scenes there. Johnson’s film deals more with the effects of the technology than its execution. As Joe narrates in the film’s first moments: “Time travel hasn’t been invented yet, but thirty years from now, it will have been.” Joe — and the viewer — is always on the outside, always reacting, never quite able to get a handle on the power of the device that’s at the story’s center. Looper often feels like a slicker, more emotionally resonant version of Shane Carruth’s fantastic 2004 time-travel indie drama Primer — Carruth worked on Looper as an advisor and designer on the time-travel devices — with equal time given to action and drama. That’s the real mash-up Johnson so brilliantly pulls off here, gliding between frenetic, graphic violence and gentle, almost elegiac scenes of quiet emotional struggle.
The first act is front-loaded with speed and action as Joe’s life and career start to abruptly crumble when two very unfortunate things happen back to back: his own future self (Bruce Willis) shows up to be killed, and then his older self promptly escapes. Old Joe has his reasons for running, hoping to stop a chain of disastrous events before they can start, but his flight puts Young Joe in danger from the syndicate that employs him and would just as soon kill him now, since the ripple effect would eliminate the older man, too. Johnson isn’t making a buddy movie, though. Old Joe and Young Joe do not team up to have wacky, ontologically troubling adventures while taking a stand against the bad guys. Each is violently opposed to the other’s success — Old Joe wants to live and change the past, Young Joe wants a chance to experience his own future — which lets Johnson make some keen observations about how much we change as we age. Watching a movie, we know that two separate men are playing differently aged versions of Joe, but in real life, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that a man at 30 and a man at 60 are two completely different people. The younger man is skilled but cocky, nothing but certainty and arrogance. The older one is shot through with melancholy and regret, fueled not by a desire to see what life can bring him but a hope to get it back. When the men briefly meet up before parting ways in a firefight, there’s a brutal tension in the air.
The film eventually opens up to a tense character study. Young Joe retreats to a farm outside the city where he knows the older Joe is headed to try and eliminate the person who will wind up causing so much grief in the future. The farm is run by Sara (Emily Blunt), who lives with her young son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon). This is where the film unfolds and really blossoms, as Old Joe makes his way through the city and Young Joe hides out in the country, waiting to see if he can capture or kill his future self. The city section that starts the film is a grimy, nihilistic vision of a future overrun by people and decay, but the country half is lit by blue skies and empty fields, reflecting the choices and opportunities being offered to the characters even as it seems their options are narrowing. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin, who shot Johnson’s other films, keeps everything looking gorgeous, from the blue-gray scale of the city to the burnt-out yellow-green of the cane fields at Sara’s farm.
Joe’s a brooding, violent guy at any age, so in a lot of ways, Gordon-Levitt isn’t so much playing a character as he is reverse-engineering an anti-hero based on Willis’s general persona. (He also sports make-up on nose and brow to reshape his face along Willis’s lines.) At the same time, Willis is playing the tenderest version of the killer he so often inhabits on screen, the man who kills not because he likes it but because he’s good at doing what needs to be done. The good news, though, is that their dual performance works. They’re believably different men, motivated by conflicting desires, but they also feel like part of the same ragged whole. Blunt is great, too, the kind of sad, strong woman that Johnson loves put between two men. The entire cast is perfect for their parts, from Jeff Daniels as the casually evil mob boss who run’s the city’s loopers to Paul Dano as Joe’s screw-up friend and colleague to Noah Segan as Kid Blue, an angry mob lieutenant who can never quite get things right. That’s a theme that comes up a lot here, like it does in all Johnson’s movies: people just a hair’s breadth from not messing up, holding on for dear life.
Johnson keeps the pace moving along perfectly as the narrative’s circle tightens and the main characters (or character, really) are drawn together to rewrite their own histories and discover new ones. As the older Joe tells the younger, talking about time travel means dealing with a “precise description of a fuzzy mechanism,” and he does his best to cut off his junior self from asking too many questions that are impossible to answer. This isn’t a dodge from Johnson, either, but his way of saying that yes, the tech is here and the story holds water, but the real focus is on the people willing to defy all known laws and travel through time to change themselves, not on the tools they use to do it. The nightclub that the younger Joe frequents in the city is called La Belle Aurore, after the bistro in Casablanca where Rick and Ilsa last saw each other before reuniting in tangled circumstances years later. It’s a nice touch that underscores just how much Johnson wants you to realize that his story, that all stories, are ultimately about the unseen consequences of our choices. Looper is a smart, engaging, moving meditation on synchronicity and fate, and the way we always seem to come back to places we thought we’d left.