I loved Rian Johnson’s debut film, the neo-noir detective story Brick, which starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a precocious student trying to solve a murder in his cliquey, drug-addled high school, a film driven by punctuated, subtle dialogue, riding instead on the film’s core mystery and the tremendous charisma Gordon-Levitt brought to the lead role. Johnson’s newest film, the time-travel action flick Looper, also stars Gordon-Levitt, and once again leans heavily on how much he can bring to a role in which his lines are limited and his character’s personality is understated. But where Brick aimed fairly small, an indie film paying homage to a genre by nearly parodying it, Looper aimes huge, tackling standard time-travel conundrums while also getting after some of the general moral questions that a time-travel storyline will inevitably pose.
Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a “looper” who, in the year 2044, serves as a hit man for a crime syndicate that sends targets back from the year 2074 – in which year time travel has been invented and made illegal, so it’s only used by organized crime groups. A looper stands at an isolated place, blunderbuss in hand, and the moment a bound and gagged victim winks into their present time, blows him away. Eventually, the future employers will end the contract by sending the looper’s future self back, with gold bars strapped to his back (in lieu of the standard silver), “closing the loop.” As it turns out, the head of that crime syndicate in the future, known only as the Rainmaker, is closing all of the loops, so we know fairly early on that Joe will be confronted by his thirty-year-older self, played by Bruce Willis, and will, in one reality, let him live (since otherwise the movie would be more of a short film). As it turns out, Future Joe has reasons for wanting to come back, with eliminating the Rainmaker before he rises to power at the top of the list. Present Joe ends up in the middle of this battle, primarily opposed to his future self but conflicted by what remains of his conscience and by the fact that he’s pursued by the 2044 arm of the syndicate that employs him.
Time-travel stories in general are difficult to plot because of, no pun intended, the loops the writer must close: The connections between cause and effect are much more clearly laid out on screen, and loops left open or closed improperly are fodder for criticism and mockery from sharper viewers. Johnson’s script here limits the number of such loops he opens, and he’s extremely meticulous about maintaining the film’s internal logic, even at the risk of potentially clueing viewers in to the film’s eventual resolution. (Once it was over, I realized I’d missed one fairly strong clue.) This tight writing bears many other gifts for the viewer, such as the scene where Joe and his future self sit down for coffee and breakfast – left uneaten, which I have to say always annoys me when I see it on screen – in which Future Joe explains how he can remember Present Joe’s actions as they happen.
Emily Blunt is extremely compelling – not to mention incredibly gorgeous – in her supporting role as Sarah, the mother of one of the candidates on Future Joe’s hit list, and the woman who takes Present Joe in while he’s on the run from the syndicate. Five-year-old Pierce Gagnon is incredible in his role as Cid, Sarah’s son, articulate beyond most kids his age and able to manipulate his emotions as an adult actor would. Jeff Daniels is brilliant, by turns hilarious and menacing, as the syndicate’s main representative and local kingpin in 2044 – but one of his gunsels, played by Noah Segan (who played Dode in Brick), was mostly a waste of time, not developed enough to have an intriguing storyline, and scarcely necessary to the main plot. Piper Perabo plays a stripper because we just couldn’t have an action film unless there’s at least one woman walking around topless, and she’s maybe the fourth-best looking woman in the movie anyway. (Her character is about as irrelevant as Segan’s.) And there’s a fair amount of over-the-top violence across the film, which may seem like an odd complaint with a hit man and, well, the same hit man as the main characters, but when you see the movie you’ll probably know which parts I mean.
Looper has also spawned a fair amount of analysis online of its internal time-travel logic, with Johnson himself going on record (here and here) to discuss some of its mysteries, including the possible infinite loop created by the film’s ending. That kind of intensive commentary can be a function of poor writing, of course, but in this case I think it’s largely to Johnson’s credit that he can answer most of these questions and yet managed to leave so much extraneous material out of the film, helping maintain some of the mystery until the final fifteen minutes. What starts out as a psychological thriller branches out into both an action film and a morality story on the importance, of all things, of strong parenting, with enough suspense to keep you hooked even if you figure out some or all of where the film is going. It’s far more clever than your typical mainstream action or sci-fi movie, skipping the naked sentimentality of the similarly ambitious Inception without aiming any lower in its plot.