You must remember this: The fundamental things don’t apply as time goes by in the ballyhooed time-travel thriller Looper. In the fat gob of exposition that opens the film, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the protagonist and narrator, explains that time travel exists in the future, but it’s illegal. But for some inexplicable reason, the mob finds it expedient to send the bodies of people they want murdered back to the past (i.e., the film’s present, 2042), where they’re disposed of by “loopers” like Joe. (Question: Once cops in the future discover the practice, wouldn’t the corpses’ route be easy to trace?) For some other inexplicable reason, aged loopers in the future are sent back to the past to be shot by younger loopers—who would seem, on minimal reflection, the least reliable assassins, given their ties to the people they’re supposed to kill (not infrequently their older selves). However, if the loopers don’t shoot the old loopers, they (the young ones) will be hideously mutilated—but not killed, since killing them would change the future. (Question: Wouldn’t sawing off their limbs change the future, too?) Joe’s boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels), tries to ’splain all this to Joe and then throws up his hands and says, “Time-travel shit fries your brain like an egg”—the sort of line a friend calls a “Get Out of Jail Free” card that filmmakers give themselves. Getting permission to be bewildered is a gift to the audience, too. You can relax and enjoy the movie, which delivers in spite of its iffy logic.
At the recent Toronto International Film Festival, Looper was acclaimed for its stylishness and narrative invention, which testifies to writer-director Rian Johnson’s greatest talent: making clumsy storytelling look tricky and sophisticated. Tropes from Blade Runner, Twelve Monkeys, and the odd French New Wave thriller are mixed and matched to give the illusion you’re watching an “existential” mystery. Joe the looper turns out to be a junkie who gives no thought to future consequences (Quelle ironie!), styling himself like a twentieth-century American movie-star crook (or like Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless styling himself like a twentieth-century American movie-star crook). Early on, he sins in his own eyes by going all Judas on a looper pal (a mewling Paul Dano) who let his older self get away. Joe barely has time to ease his conscience—he offers a hooker his filthy lucre so she can start a new life with her son—before he’s staring down his gun at his own older self (Bruce Willis—and no, the two Joes don’t mesh in your head—Willis’s personality is too distinct). Young and Old Joe do not like each other one bit. “Why don’t you do what old men do and die?” “Take your little gun out from between your legs and do it, boy,” etc.
The second half of Looper is part The Terminator, part Stephen King’s Firestarter. The elite loopers (“Gats”) chase Joe, who’s chasing Old Joe, who’s hunting someone who will grow up in the future to be a mighty looper-killer called the Rainmaker. Young Joe stumbles onto the farm of hillbilly Emily Blunt, who points a shotgun into her wheat and yells, “Ah will cut you the fuck in hay-alf!” She has a strange little boy (Pierce Gagnon) with pouty lips, a big head, and temper tantrums so forceful she has to tuck herself into a steel cabinet and shut the door.
Looper is all over the place—a series of barely aligned loop-de-loops—but if high-toned futuristic time-travel pictures with a splash of romance float your boat the way they do mine, you’ll have yourself a time. The climax is tumultuous, the payoff happy and sad in the right measure. The future might be ghastly, but heroism lives. The stars work hard, Gordon-Levitt to purge all traces of his puppy-dog persona, Willis to suppress his smirk, Blunt to smooth transitions that would trip up lesser actresses. (Her face seems incapable of registering a banal emotion.) Jeff Daniels creates the year’s most hateable bad guy by gazing on unfortunates with moist, sympathetic eyes before shattering their bones with a ball-peen hammer. As I left the theater, I heard two people in nearby aisles trying to explain different plot points to their companions. I didn’t listen. That information should only be dispensed on a need-to-know basis.