Already, critics from the four corners of the Web are comparing Looper to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, which blew all our minds back in 2010. The two movies have little in common in terms of plot and themes. However, since the advent of the Hollywood blockbuster machine, rare have become sci-fi thrillers that aim to engross us with their story rather than their special effects, and rarer still those with such a strong authorial voice. Watching Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) contemplate his past, present, and future existence, I didn’t feel like I was being lulled into a popcorn fantasy. I felt like I was having a dialogue with Rian Johnson.
Like Nolan, the writer-director has expressed in his previous work a certain fascination with genre fiction and the art of storytelling, and, like Inception, his latest tale feels like the culmination of long–standing thoughts. Take, for example, the way Looper links its film noir aesthetic to the notion of a wasted youth, echoing the central conceit of Brick (2005). The movie also draws from The Brothers Bloom (2009), mixing the idea of seeking meaning in what we do with that of breaking a self-destructive cycle. This is, after all, a time-travel yarn.
We open on the year 2044, when Joe is still young, brash, and fundamentally selfish: the shortsighted sort with so little appreciation for life that he’d gladly murder his future self as long as it didn’t interfere with his own existence (the irony barely dawns on him). He works as a Looper, a hired gun contracted by the mob to dispose of victims sent from thirty years forward until he’ll one day execute his older self, closing the loop. One might ask why his employers don’t have the retired Loopers killed by folk who don’t know them, but how poetic would that be?
Of course, young Joe eventually encounters old Joe (Bruce Willis), who travels to the past (the protagonist’s present, our future) with a plan: punch out his former self before he shoots and prevent the death of his wife (Summer Qing) without prejudice. This means eliminating the Rainmaker, a crime lord who has yet to surface, and the two Joes soon find themselves on the run, with one alternating between kicking his younger ass and saving it (to ensure his own existence) and the other debating whether to kill or help his future self. Their animosity conveys self-hatred in a way never before seen on screen.
You see, the years between 2044 and 2074, which are depicted in a fantastic montage halfway into the narrative, have proven unflattering to old Joe. That is, until he met his wife, thus exacerbating his shame at his former self. I use the word “exacerbating” because young Joe already resents what’s become of him. However, what with the future ahead of him, he still believes in personal potential, rejecting the notion that only one specific woman can get him back on track. When the boy proposes never to meet his beloved so as to ensure her safety, his elder self turns down the idea immediately, proving himself a hypocrite. This turns out but the first of his selfish transgressions.
I admire both actors for taking on and accepting to share such a compromised role. Bruce Willis has spent his entire career playing lovable action heroes. Here he uses his tough guy charm to help us understand how a violent man might fool himself into thinking he’s been redeemed. As per his age, young Joe proves blunter in both demeanour and self-image, but he remains the same character right down to that famous sideways smirk and self-deprecating swag. Joseph Gordon-Levitt nails his costar’s more subtle mannerisms but never delves into caricature. More to the point, he manages to develop a full-rounded, compelling human being underneath his makeup and digitally altered features.
Every character in Looper seems to have a life of his or her own, from Jeff Daniels’ fatalistic mob boss to Garret Dillahunt’s Jesse, a third-act henchman who breaks every genre convention by showing judgment and scruples. Also consider Sara (Emily Blunt), a single mother whom young Joe encounters while trying to figure out old Joe’s next move. Given their plot function, a less ambitious filmmaker might have presented the woman and her psychic son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) as figures in a Rockwell painting, but Johnson gives them genuine personalities, conflict, and regret.
Whereas Inception trades in far-off concepts and abstract philosophy, Looper seems more interested in its characters’ deep-seeded humanity. Take Joe’s traumatic childhood, for instance, how it echoes Cid’s own psychological scars and informs our hero’s final decision. As with Nolan’s movie, those paying close attention to the themes will have little difficulty predicting how the story ends, but I don’t see that as a flaw so much as a testament to Johnson’s calculated discourse about the way our hopes and disappointments shape the very fabric of the universe.