A word to the wise: Don’t think too much about the time-travel element of Looper. For that matter, don’t think too much about the plot, which kind of amounts to the same thing. Looper’s being sold as a slam-bang sci-fi actioner, but that’s not the story that writer-director Rian Johnson is interested in. It’s a bit like 12 Monkeys stood on its head: In both, Bruce Willis travels back in time to stop something bad from happening. But 12 Monkeys wasn’t only about how the past affects the future and how the future can change the past, and neither is Looper. It’s more of a melancholy drama about people having touching faith in the notion that changing one small thing can change everything for the better, even if it means killing innocent people. The movie is morally murky, to put it lightly, and that’s a bit refreshing; we’re made to think about why we want the protagonists to achieve their goals — because they’re at the center of the movie?
There are two protagonists, who are the same person at different stages of his life. Younger Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) kills people for the mob; his victims are sent back in time from thirty years in his future, and he kills them and disposes of their bodies (the body disposal isn’t as easy in the future, where everyone is “tagged”). Assassins like Joe are known as “loopers,” and sometimes the future mob sends a thirty-years-older version of the looper himself, so that he has to kill his future self (“closing the loop”). This is what happens, apparently, when Joe finds himself pointing his blunderbuss at older Joe (Bruce Willis), who escapes and takes off on a mission to make his (and younger Joe’s) life better.
All of the futuristic stuff is window dressing — especially since the “now” scenes, younger Joe’s scenes, are set in 2044, though I’m not sure why. There is another major character, Sara (Emily Blunt), who lives on a farm and looks after a little boy whose continued survival and stable upbringing are important for a lot of reasons. The plotting gets a little “wait a minute.” But the centerpiece of Looper finds younger and older Joe sitting across from each other in younger Joe’s favorite diner, and that scene — quiet, skillfully acted, bringing out Gordon-Levitt’s itchy impatience and Willis’ wounded soulfulness — is really the whole movie, the reason, I think, that Rian Johnson (as well as Gordon-Levitt, reuniting with Johnson after the superb Brick) wanted to make the film.
Neither younger Joe nor older Joe is entirely good or bad; they have heavy shadings of gray. Each is responsible for the deaths of innocents; younger Joe never asks what his victims did to be sent to him for execution, and we never find out. But the movie successfully expands on an intriguing concept introduced earlier in the film, when a hapless looper (Paul Dano) is expected to kill his older self and can’t do it. The difference between the two Joes is something like the difference between Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name and Eastwood’s Will Munny in Unforgiven. Younger Joe is cold, nihilistic, drugging himself away from awareness of what he does for a living; older Joe has passed through the flames and, improbably, in later life, found love. There’s real weight in older Joe’s passionate defense of the life he’s managed to build; younger Joe’s dismissal of that life seems inhumanly offensive to us.
There’s a lot of other window dressing, or “world-building” if you will, and some of it adds texture and some doesn’t. Jeff Daniels is amusing as Abe, a guy from the future who runs the looper organization. Younger Joe tells Abe about his plan to retire eventually and move to France; “Move to China,” Abe insists, “I’m a guy from the future — trust me, move to China.” Abe is interesting, and an idiotic looper (Noah Segan) who puts too much trust in his long-barreled “gat” affords some comic relief. Other stuff wasn’t terribly clear to me: If, in the future, you can’t hide the body of someone you’ve killed, why can’t you just kill someone and ship the corpse back in time, instead of shipping a living victim and running the risk that he escapes or the looper chokes?¹ But like I said (and like Abe says), don’t dwell too much on the window dressing. Look through the window and into the diner; that’s where the real movie is.
¹According to Rian Johnson, this is because people have trackers implanted in them, and if they die, the authorities immediately know. The movie doesn’t bend over backwards to clarify this, though.