Looper is a rare example of ingenious science-fiction storytelling where the fundamental concepts are so intriguing that their stylish execution feels like gravy. Knowing the central premise isn’t a spoiler: the film wants to explore every possible facet of that idea. What’s more, by taking place just thirty-odd years from now, writer-director Rian Johnson gets to share his thoughts about the bleak direction in which we’re all headed. His core idea: a hired killer from the future travels thirty years back in time in order to confront his younger self and change the course of history.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the younger Joe, whose conscience isn’t rattled by his job as a paid killer, because he never actually sees the hooded men he murders. What’s more, he gets to live what passes for the good life in 2044. (One of my favorite contemporary actors, Gordon-Levitt has had his face altered with prosthetic makeup so he will more closely resemble his future self, played by Bruce Willis. I’m not sure this was necessary: instead of emphasizing their facial similarities, it caused me to stare quizzically at Gordon-Levitt throughout the picture.)
Willis is risking a great deal by traveling back in time and trying to steer his younger self in the right direction. Worse yet, he finds the young man he once was to be incredibly stubborn and unwilling to take his advice. Their deadly game of cat-and-mouse, in which they’re both being tracked by the bad guys who run their operation, winds up in a bucolic country setting, where Emily Blunt and her young son become victims—and participants—in the unfolding of the tale.
I wanted to love Looper, based on my initial response to its clever ideas, but it’s long, cold-blooded, and difficult to cozy up to. Just as you realize where it’s headed, the pace slows down (deliberately, I presume) and the filmmaker asks his audience to be patient as he leads us to his inexorable and none-too-happy conclusion. I still admire what Rian Johnson has pulled off, the same way I fell under the spell of his debut feature, Brick, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He’s a real talent with an unlimited future. And it’s impossible for me to carp too much about a futuristic movie that manages to pay homage, however briefly, to Casablanca. (Note the nightclub headquarters of the underworld boss played by Jeff Daniels.)