Any conversation dealing with time travel it can easily become an endless debate about the technicalities, ethics, paradoxes and impossibilities of practicing time travel. Time travel is messy and because of this it is a bit of a cheat when used as a literary device. It can get the writers into very tricky situations when the impossibilities begin to pile up, or it can be used to completely wipe a slate and start anew. Few writers have ever gotten it right, but when they do it is usually beautiful. Rian Johnson’s Looper gets it right within its own world. Unlike most time travel stories, Looper embraces the paradoxes. But more surprisingly it wipes them away in a rather clever - and intense - conclusion.
The film opens in 2044 where a narration by a Looper call Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) informs the audience with what they need to know about the future. We learn that at some point further in the future time travel will be invented but declared illegal. Still, organized crime uses it as a method for disposing bodies. They zap the bodies from 2074 to 2044 where the Loopers are waiting with a shot gut to blast their heads off. It is effective and clean. Eventually the Loopers themselves, once they are old and useless, are sent back in time to be killed by their younger selves. This is known as “closing the loop”.
One day Joe, our Looper, is at work blasting away bodies for the mob when his future self (Bruce Willis) is sent back to be assassinated. Old Joe arrives without a hood, and Young Joe hesitates to pull the trigger when he sees his older self. Young Joe knew it was part of the deal, and if he doesn’t kill Old Joe the punishment is much, much worse than death. So the chase begins: Young Joe is hunting down Old Joe, while the mob is hunting down Young Joe for not disposing of Old Joe, and Old Joe is hunting down a future mob boss known as The Rainmaker - I love it when sci-fi villains have names like that.
The story is further complicated with the introduction of two female characters; we learn that in the future Joe will eventually be married and his wife (Summer Qing) will eventually be murdered by The Rainmaker. But in the present Young Joe meets Sara (Emily Blunt), a fierce farmer girl who lives with her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon). Most of the film takes place in her farm while Young Joe is hiding in her barn waiting patiently for Old Joe to arrive so he can kill him. I shouldn’t have to mention that Old Joe knows Young Joe is waiting for him because he has been there before and remembers it.
Traditionally, Hollywood would have turned this premise into a high speed chase movie with a predictable third act; the premise alone is good enough that the movie could have just gone along with it. But, thankfully writer/director Rian Johnson has a lot more patience and a lot more to say. The best scenes are not the chases or the shootings - though they are quite thrilling - but the small moments between characters.
It is interesting to note that the future in the film looks very much like the past. Kansas City in 2044 is still a compact city surrounded by expansive farms; and the perfect place to have chases in the city, and the cornfields like a classic 1940s American gangster film. Shanghai in 2074 looks straight out of a 1930s Chinese noir film. All the necessary details are there to make us feel “in the future” but the film doesn’t waste time in making us notice because this is not a film about the future - or even about time travel; Looper is first and foremost a character piece. One minute before the end, the movie could have closed with a thousand different endings; nine-hundred and ninety-nine of them would have felt gimmicky and wrong. The one ending that is uses is unexpected and relies entirely on a main character’s decision, change, and growth. Rarely is everything so elegant in fiction.
This is Rian Johnson’s third picture after Brick (2005) and The Brothers Bloom (2009). The first is a high school noir also starting Joseph Gordon-Levitt, before his big break, it is charming, intense, and one of my favorite films. The Brothers Bloom could have used a polish but it is still engaging. Rian Johnson’s films happen too far apart from each other; I really hope we get to see a lot more of his work and more often; he deserves it.