Most glossy sci-fi films would pull back before entering the heady, sometimes shockingly dark, and supremely rewarding territory where Looper makes its home. Rather than getting himself caught up in the Catch-22 logistics that bog down so many time-travel stories, writer/director Rian Johnson focuses on the personal dramas that play out among the (pretty spectacular) shoot-outs and chase scenes. As a result, Johnson has it both ways—Looper is a slick-looking, tightly plotted, and fast-paced sci-fi thriller that delivers its knockout punch to the heart rather than the head.
Like Johnson’s well-received 2005 debut Brick, Looper borrows heavily from classic noir films and pulpy crime novels, twisting those elements into funky new shapes by dropping them into unexpected settings. Brick placed its gumshoe hero (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in a California high school; Looper sticks its futuristic hitman (Gordon-Levitt again) in a Kansas sugar-cane field, where he promptly blows a hole in the chest of a bound and hooded man who suddenly materializes in front of him.
A little explanation is in order. The film opens in 2044, 30 years before the advent of time travel. Other technological wizardry of the 2070s includes tagging technology that makes it impossible to dispose of the bodies of murder victims, so instead of whacking their adversaries in 2074, crime bosses shoot them back in time where guys like Joe, known as “loopers,” will do the mob’s bloody work and collect payment in the form of bars of silver. Loopers live well, but there’s a catch: Future Mob doesn’t like loose ends, so every looper will eventually be expected to assassinate the older version of himself. He’ll do the deed, collect a handsome payment, and live out the 30 years left to him. If he hesitates and “lets his loop run,” (i.e., allows his older self to escape execution), a far grislier fate awaits him at the hands of Abe (Jeff Daniels), a cynical mob boss with a volatile temper who has been sent back in time to keep the loopers in line.
It sounds complicated, but—well, actually, it is complicated, and things get even weirder when Joe’s number is finally up. When his older self (played by Bruce Willis) inevitably appears in Joe’s crosshairs, the problem isn’t that he can’t bring himself to commit this trippy form of suicide; it’s that Old Joe has an agenda, and he’s not going down without taking a few people with him. Who those people are, though, is a reveal best left in Johnson’s capable hands.
Up to this point, you’ll think you have Looper figured out. Unless you’ve just been zapped into the 21st century from a time before the Internet was invented, you know that Young Joe and Old Joe aren’t going to see eye-to-eye on things, and that there will be plenty of noggin-scratching ruminations on the inherent dangers of screwing with the timeline, jagged as it might be.
What you won’t be prepared for, though, is the emotional complexity at Looper’s core. As it turns out, Johnson is less concerned with time paradoxes than with heart-rending regret, the futility of violence, and the sometimes paralyzing fear of loss and abandonment that haunts so many of its characters. There’s much more to the story than the trailer leads us to believe—things take a dramatic shift when the action migrates from the city to a remote farmstead inhabited by a shotgun-toting woman (Emily Blunt) and her young son (Pierce Gagnon)—but it would really be a shame to give away any of the movie’s many surprises.
For a while, Looper, with all its macho posturing, feels like a distinctly masculine affair. (“Why don’t you do what old men do, and die?” snarls Young Joe to his older self. “Shut up, boy,” snaps Old Joe.) Not that there’s anything wrong with that—even if it never went any deeper, Looper would still be one of the more solid sci-fi offerings in recent memory. Its vision of the future is compelling. The middle class has been more or less eradicated, so America is dotted with shanty towns and tent-cities; a few can afford slick-looking sports cars or fancy, flying motorcycles, but most get around in dilapidated pick-up trucks and solar-powered jalopies that have one wheel in the junkyard. While most filmmakers are happy to ride on Blade Runner’s dystopian coattails, Johnson actually takes the time to develop his own vision, which is grim and sexy in equal parts.
What really lifts Looper to great heights, though, is the fact that it’s an emotional meat grinder. It takes this aspect a while to find its legs, but once Old Joe shows up and we realize what he wants and how far he’ll go to get it, it becomes clear that only the most cynical viewers will walk away from Looper unscathed.