The Mind-Bending Charm of 'Looper'

Director Rian Johnson's latest, starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a sci-fi thriller with surprising heart.

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Film District

"I don't want to talk about time-travel shit," Bruce Willis tells Joseph Gordon-Levitt early in Rian Johnson's sci-fi thriller Looper. "Because if we start, we're going to be here all day, making diagrams with straws."

It's a good bit of advice, and the film itself is generally wise enough to take it. As the title suggests, Looper has its share of fun with the convolutions and conundrums that take place when folks from the future start tinkering with the past. (One clever and unsettling example involves people etching scars into their own flesh as a means of sending an indelible message to their future selves.) But the movie never allows itself to get bogged down in questions about the physics or philosophy of time travel, the what-ifs and how-comes and why-didn'ts. Leave the structural analysis for the DVD commentary. For all its temporal shenanigans, Looper is to be enjoyed in the moment.

Gordon-Levitt and Willis star, respectively, as a contract killer named Joe and a former contract killer named Joe—the same guy, in fact, just separated by three decades of hard-won experience. The movie is set in 2044, the era of the younger Joe, who opens the movie by informing us that "Time travel hasn't been invented yet. But in 30 years it will have been." For all the obvious reasons, the practice is immediately outlawed. (Or is that "will immediately have been outlawed"? This is a movie that has one grasping at verb tenses.) The perverse effect, in a perhaps unintentional nod to the old NRA adage, is that only outlaws use time travel. Specifically, the criminal syndicates of the future, a period in which it has become extremely difficult to dispose of dead bodies undetected, begin sending their victims back in time to 2044, where Joe and other "loopers" can blow them away with impunity.

As jobs go, it's not so bad: Joe stands in a field with his pocket watch; waits for his cuffed and hooded prey to appear on the tarp he's carefully laid out; and blammo! Or at least it's not so bad relative to the other employment opportunities available in 2044, which seem to consist primarily of hobo and hooker. The sullen retro-futurism on display in Looper will be familiar to anyone who's seen Blade Runner, The Road Warrior, or their many imitators. City streets—and their denizens—are gray with grime; high-tech hover bikes are rare, but old-school shotguns ubiquitous.

There is, however, one catch to Joe's profession: In order to tie up loose ends, the crime syndicates that employ the loopers eventually require them to kill their own future selves—to "close the loop." And when Joe's future self shows up on his tarp one day he's none to eager to have his loop closed.

It's a neat little setup. After Old Joe (again, played by Willis) escapes his rendezvous with mortality, Young Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is held accountable by his none-too-forgiving boss (Jeff Daniels). So Young Joe is tasked with finding and killing Old Joe, even as Old Joe is trying to keep Young Joe alive—because a dead Young Joe means that Old Joe ceases to exist. And for any whose heads are not yet spinning, writer-director Johnson throws in another loop or two: In the future, Old Joe's wife was killed by a mysterious, Keyser-Soze-like crime lord called the Rainmaker; now that he's back in the past, Old Joe is determined to find this villain as a boy, and snuff him out before he can grow into deadly manhood. But Young Joe falls in love with boy's mother (Emily Blunt), a tough, resourceful farm gal, and he commits to protecting her and her son from the threat posed by his own future self...

Are you following me? If not, don't sweat it. There'll be plenty of time to diagram the whole thing with straws after you leave the theater.

First, though, a few words about the non-time-travel-related question most likely to be on viewers' lips: What the hell happened to Joseph Gordon-Levitt's face? Rest assured, the appealing young star (who got his big cinematic break in Johnson's first film, Brick) has suffered no motorcycle crash followed by problematic reconstructive surgery. Rather, Johnson asked makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji to increase Gordon-Levitt's physical resemblance to Willis—in particular, his distinctive Roman nose—and Tsuji succeeded, depending on one's point of view, either too well or not quite well enough. In either case, we're deep into the uncanny valley here, with Gordon-Levitt calling to mind less Willis himself than a Willis marionette that didn't make the final cut of Team America: World Police.

Happily, Johnson's decision to have Gordon-Levitt go the full Dyan Cannon is an uncharacteristic misstep in an otherwise sharp and self-assured film. Though Looper carries the echoes of many earlier entertainments—The Terminator, Blade Runner, Logan's Run, Witness, Willis's own Twelve Monkeys—it is a fresh and vivid work of imagination, and a return to form for Johnson following the awkward misfire of 2008's The Brothers Bloom. With Looper, Johnson offers up a mind-bending ride that is not afraid to slow down now and again, to explore themes of regret and redemption, solitude and sacrifice, love and loss. It's a movie worth seeing and, perhaps, going back to see again.