“Looper” demonstrates anew what filmgoers already know about time-travel flicks: they’re illogical, downright confusing, and—in the right hands—quite absorbing. Writer/director Rian Johnson’s convoluted script explores some of the standard themes of the genre, in particular the issue of what happens to the future if you go back into and change the past. Placing this question in the context of a noir action movie lends the film some originality and appeal. Add in stars Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Emily Blunt, and you have a potential box office winner.
The story is set (mostly) in 2044 in Kansas. (Curiously, sugar cane is growing there. Maybe climate change is for real; maybe the movie was filmed in New Orleans.) Hired assassin Joe (Gordon-Levitt) informs us in a voice-over that time travel hasn’t been invented yet, but that it will have been some thirty years down the road. In that even-more-dystopic future, mobs will control the process, which has been declared illegal. When the mob wants to dispose of a body, it sends the victim three decades back, hooded and bound, with a load of silver ingots strapped to his back. When he appears, the hit man—called a “looper” and carrying a “blunderbuss”—terminates him, unbinds his fee, and dumps the body in an incinerator.
The silver enables Joe to live a pretty high life, with plenty of drugs, sex, and even a red Miata that runs on gas. (Most of the old cars have solar cells stuck on the hood: maybe the rumors about us running out of oil are true, too.) Only one hitch, though a major one: when the looper has outlived his usefulness, his retirement is marked by his victim’s bearing a trove of gold—a pension of sorts. The event starts the clock ticking on the thirty years remaining to the looper, after which he’ll get sent back, thus “closing the loop.”
The whole agenda is administered by one Abe (a heavily bearded Jeff Daniels) who has been dispatched by a mysterious mob boss known only as “The Rainmaker.” His henchmen carry “gats,” another nod to the gangster flick, and as in those classics, they aren’t very bright. So when the older Joe (Willis), turns up on the tarp in the field one day and manages to escape from the younger Joe, the chase is on.
Shortly thereafter, young Joe meets a shotgun-wielding farm woman, Sara (Blunt), the single mother of six-year-old Cid (an uncannily good Pierce Gagnon), and the action slows to a crawl. But tension remains present, as both older Joe and the other loopers are still in play. The final Big Shootout clarifies some previous foreshadows. It is nicely paced by Johnson and film editor Bob Ducsay and beautifully realized by cinematographer Steve Yedlin. Johnson’s surprise ending will satisfy some viewers, mystify others.
“Loopers” is appropriately rated “R” for violence, language, drug use, and some nudity and sex. Sci-fi fans will doubtless enjoy it, though it eschews overuse of special effects and the set dressing clichés of futuristic dramas. But so will those who appreciate good acting—I particularly liked Blunt and Gagnon—and don’t mind a little logic-bending, a not infrequent staple of time-travel stories. Oh yeah, and if you want to see whether Gordon-Levitt and Willis can actually be made to resemble the same guy, now’s your chance.