After you've seen Looper, come back and listen to our Spoiler Special podcast with Dana Stevens and Dan Kois. You can also download the podcast.
Looper is the third film from Rian Johnson, whose debut feature Brick (2005) somehow pulled off the brazen gimmick of setting a noir murder mystery in a suburban American high school. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (then known to most audiences as the alien kid on the family sitcom Third Rock from the Sun) played the lead role—a teenage Sam Spade investigating his girlfriend’s murder—with an alchemically perfect combination of hip detachment and wary melancholy. Gordon-Levitt was already a rising actor, having been singled out by critics in less-mainstream roles, like the gay drifter he played in Gregg Araki’s moody, unforgettable Mysterious Skin. But it was only after Brick that he began his steady rise toward household-name status, playing a lovelorn greeting-card designer in (500) Days of Summer, a brain-cancer patient in 50/50, and a credible action sidekick in both Inception and The Dark Knight Rises.
I’m an avowed JGL fan, so the prospect of Gordon-Levitt and Johnson working together again was enticing. So was Looper’s high-concept sci-fi premise: Gordon-Levitt plays a hired assassin whose targets are sent back in time from the future. It’s 2044, and time travel hasn’t yet been invented, but—to employ the future-perfect tense useful mainly for time-travel movies—it will have been invented in 30 years. By that point, a fearful, vaguely post-apocalyptic government will have forbidden any use of the technology ... so, to paraphrase the NRA bumper sticker, when time machines are outlawed, only outlaws will have time machines. Soon the contraptions (which look, pleasingly, like Jules Verne-era bathyspheres) are used solely on the black market, transporting the human garbage of the future back in time for the past to clean up. At least, that's how Joe (Gordon-Levitt) justifies to himself the fact that he makes his living waiting in deserted fields for hooded, cuffed men to appear out of nowhere so he can shoot them with a blunderbuss.
Underground assassins like Joe—members of an organized force led by menacing boss-from-the-future Abe (Jeff Daniels)—are known as “loopers,” for the chilling reason that, after being paid handsomely and given an early retirement that lasts exactly 30 years, they themselves will be captured, sent back in time and killed, thus closing the “loop” of their lives. As the film begins, a new crime lord, a fearsome gangster known as the Rainmaker, has taken over in the future and is issuing new orders about the existing loopers: He wants all their future selves sent back in time and killed immediately, preferably by the younger versions of themselves. (Why exactly this setup would be desirable was one plot point among many that eluded me. Given that the victims from the future are being sent back with their heads covered, why would it matter which looper killed whom?)
Joe’s featherbrained fellow looper Seth (Paul Dano), encountering his own later-self, isn’t able to bring himself to pull the trigger, and the man gets away, resulting in a very bad outcome for both present and future Seths (and the first of several extended bursts of stomach-churning violence). Joe resolves that, when and if his own future self appears in cuffs before him, he won’t hesitate to blow him away—but when that day comes and Joe’s future self turns out to be Bruce Willis, all bets are off.
Future Joe manages to knock Past Joe out cold, take his gun, and head out into the world to find and kill the child destined one day to grow into the Rainmaker. Based on a tip about the super-criminal’s date and place of birth, old Joe has narrowed the candidates down to three small children, one of whom (Pierce Gagnon) is the son of a lonely sugarcane farmer (Emily Blunt) in whose barn young Joe has taken shelter while on the run from Abe’s men, who are now hunting down both Joes with extreme prejudice.
You see where this is going: At some point, Young Joe and Old Joe are going to have to meet up and debrief about the 30 years that separate them, then decide whether they’re going to continue as allies or enemies. The moment this finally happens, in an Edward Hopper-esque diner in the middle of nowhere, was for me the movie’s high point. As they stare at each other in profile over two identical plates of steak and eggs, Willis and Gordon-Levitt, such different types both physically and temperamentally, make a strange sense as each others’ time-traveling avatars, especially since we’re meant to imagine that Joe’s years of hard living to come will make him a coarser, tougher man in middle age. (Levitt was also fitted with facial prosthetics to make his fine-boned face more closely resemble Willis’ craggier features. The nose works; the eyebrows are pushing it.) The diner scene also snaps with smart dialogue that playfully bats around sci-fi clichés; asked by his 2044 self to explicate one of the paradoxes of time travel, 2074 Joe impatiently dismisses the question, insisting they have no time to “start making diagrams with straws.”
Too bad, because a well-thought-out straw diagram might have been able to get me through the movie’s last half-hour, in which timeless philosophical questions of free will vs. destiny, nature vs. nurture, and utilitarian ethics (would you consider killing a child if you knew it meant saving countless future lives from the monster he might grow up to be?) get raised, then chucked aside as the story hurtles to a rushed, gory conclusion that leaves nearly as many plot holes as bullet holes. Saddest of all, after their juicy mid-movie encounter at the diner, Old and Young Joe hardly ever share the screen again, and when they do, it’s mostly to exchange terse remarks and gunfire.
Looper felt to me like a maddening near-miss: It posits an impossible but fascinating-to-imagine relationship—a face-to-face encounter between one’s present and future self, in which each self must account for its betrayal of the other—and then throws away nearly all the dramatic potential that relationship offers. If someone remakes Looper as the movie it could have been in, say, 30 years, will someone from the future please FedEx it back to me?
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