The year is 2042, time travel doesn’t exist yet but it will in 30 years. As soon as the technology is invented it is made illegal. Only gangsters use the technology to send people 30 years back to be killed and disposed of. The people who do this job are called Looper’s. This job has a finite shelf-life as eventually the older version of a Looper is sent back for the younger version to kill, “closing the loop”. This world is Rian Johnson’s third film, Looper.
Johnson has Joseph Gordon Levitt as his leading man for the second time. This time Gordon Levitt – complete with prosthetics and contact lenses – is Joe. A Looper, whose life is upended when he comes across his older self, played by Bruce Willis, hence the prosthetics. Older Joe came ready, evading his younger incarnation’s blunderbuss blast before knocking him out and running to freedom. Unlike all the other people who were sent back in time, Willis has plans to change the way the next thirty years unfold.
Traditionally time-travel films are undone by their own ambitions. One of the few films which this isn’t a case for is Primer, whose director, Shane Carruth, (with a ‘special thanks’ credit) was consulted to ensure narrative cohesion. Johnson’s hard-boiled influences combined with such considered time-travel mechanics creates some of the film’s best scenes. For instance, one of the most inventively unpleasant torture scenes in a long time houses dual purposes. It also serves as the closest explanation of mechanics next to a brief glimpse of the diving bell-like time machine and a tense conversation in an out-of-town diner.
Unlike certain other films, however, time isn’t the entire reason behind Looper’s existence. Under all the thematic levels, this is a tight action sci-fi. Much of the first half sees the world of Looper established and the bloody violence that is synonymous with the profession. Then Willis escapes and it introduces a cat and mouse dynamic, which when done with Johnson’s pacing and his inventive camerawork becomes relentlessly exciting. It’s the sort of genre picture that can find a mainstream audience without compromise. At least not till the second half when the plot beats become more predictable minus the films shocking truth and CGI effects.
Another major and unavoidable element is the way Joseph Gordon Levitt is made to look like Bruce Willis. It’s a passing issue, quickly forgotten thanks to the distinguished performances and layered immersive storytelling. For Bruce Willis this is the best he has been in a long time or at the very least since Moonrise Kingdom. As the elder Joe he has a more downbeat emotional side that paints him as a cynical, solemn man aggressively trying to protect what is his. Likewise Levitt suffers from the same singularity to what is his and what he owns. Each develops, whether for the better or worse. They both play the same character, textually and analytically, and it’s truly fascinating to see how the character differs through these two heavyweights.
As early as his début film, Rian Johnson had developed his style as a film maker. He has a wonderful idealization of 20th century affectations in that he uses the tropes of film noir in his vernacular, he has adopted that same style in the structure of his futuristic dystopia. Likewise, the camerawork is a notable strength, creating momentum with unconventional angles, jump cuts and montage. The is a montage which illuminates how Older Joe spends the 30 years between killing his senior and becoming the senior is another high point. As this concise montage shows, Looper is a technically astounding feat in both its emotional levity and the unique body of influences and design decisions that its director brings.
That very nearly isn’t the case. Looper does many things, with a 180 in style and execution at the half way point, bringing Emily Blunt with it. Be it the many ideas about what the title is referring to, whether it is the endless echoes in time cycles or something else, as well as the further elements that bring Johnson’s script to life. Subsequently Looper barely keeps its head above water. This is an excellent film, no doubt, but it constantly threatens to collapse under the weight of all its themes and concepts. The fact that it doesn’t wipe out in spectacular fashion is something of a miracle.