It’s a rare movie that takes common elements that have been used in other movies – time travel (Time After Time, The Time Machine), telekinesis (Carrie), a dystopian future (Children of Men, Blade Runner), assassins (Terminator) and neo-film noir (in particular, Drive) – blends it all together and comes up with something completely original and stunning. Looper does that.
In the 2070’s, time travel becomes a reality but is immediately outlawed by the government for fear of someone changing history. The mob, though, uses it, since with tagging of individuals and surveillance it’s almost impossible to dispose of a body. They send one of their own, Abe (Jeff Daniels) back in time to set up a disposal system. He recruits a team of assassins, called “Loopers,” who wait for the appearance of a man the mob wants disposed of, and blow him away with a blunderbuss. The victim comes through, bound and with a scarf covering their face, with the looper’s payment, in silver ingots strapped to their back. Sometimes, though, there’s a large payment in gold. That means the person they’ve just killed is their 30-year-older self. It’s called “closing the loop.” That looper then retires and gets to live out the last 30 years of their lives, until the mob sends them back to meet their younger self.
It’s 2044, and Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an efficient looper. He waits for his hits in a sugarcane field outside the city, shoots the victim when they appear, and dumps the body into an industrial furnace. Joe is friends with other loopers like Seth (Paul Dano), and spends his off-time at clubs in a drug-induced haze. Seth, like 10% of the future populace, has a genetic mutation that allows for simple telekinesis, like floating coins. Things are fine until Seth fails to close his loop. He asks Joe to hide him from the mob, and warns Joe that his future-self told him there’s a new boss who has come from nowhere, taken out all the old crime bosses, and is now closing all the loops. Abe sends Kid Blue (Noah Segan) and a bunch of gat men – hired guns – to bring in Joe. Joe gives up Seth, and in one of the more stunning sequences ever filmed, the mob convinces the Old Seth to turn himself in for elimination.
Joe goes back to his looping, until one day the victim who appears is Old Joe (Bruce Willis), unbound and without the head covering. He manages to overwhelm Joe and heads to the city on a mission to protect his future. Joe arranges a sitdown with Old Joe at a diner he frequents, but they’re interrupted by Kid Blue and a bunch of gat men. Joe manages to grab one clue regarding Old Joe’s plans, and he follows it to a farm where he meets Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son Cid (Pierce Gagnon).
This synopsis hardly does the film justice, because there is so much more that has been packed into the script and the film’s 2 hour running time. Writer and director Rian Johnson has turned genres on their ear before, with 2005’s high school noir Brick. It also starred Gordon-Levitt and was instrumental in his move from child actor on Third Rock From The Sun to full-fledged movie star. Johnson made the little-seen black comedy The Brothers Bloom in 2008, but now with Looper he’s gone from independent pictures right to the middle of the mainstream, staking his place among filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Michael Mann. The only film that Looper could honestly be compared with is Inception, and it would not suffer in that comparison.
Gordon-Levitt has done strong supporting work recently for Nolan in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, and has shone in 50/50 and (500) Days of Summer (I’ll forgive him Premium Rush – even Tom Hanks has Bachelor Party and Volunteers on his credits). Here he’s acting beneath facial prosthetics that bring him closer to Willis as his older self. (In another exceptional sequence, we see how Joe became Old Joe, and how he changed part of his fate.) Gordon-Levitt still projects his character’s inner conflict despite the prosthetics, including his protective feelings for both Sara and Cid.
Willis takes essentially a supporting role, though it’s one of the best he’s had in years. He shows he still has his acting chops, despite making “get the money and run” appearances in The Expendables 1&2 and the upcoming G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Emily Blunt is almost unrecognizable with plain makeup and a flat Midwest American accent, yet she shines in the role of Sara. The biggest revelation though is Pierce Gagnon as Cid. Hopefully he, like Gordon-Levitt, will navigate the pitfalls of youth to shine as an adult. He demonstrates that potential.
The production design by Ed Verreaux and Steve Yedlin’s cinematography deserve special mention. While some movies set in the future postulate major changes, Looper shows a still-familiar territory put pushed just a little ahead. There are some fantastic items, like a hovering, jet-powered cycle, but they are only for the monied class. In fact, the class striations are even sharper than today, and harken back to the late 19th Century. The camera movements and lighting take their cue from classic noir, and add to the ambience of the film.
If you want a film that is both entertaining and will give you much to think about, go see Looper. Even if you just want entertainment, go see it. It’s one of the best of the year so far.