Looper is the rare contemporary American sci-fi action whirligig that actually improves as it proceeds along its narrative course. At the opening, we’re introduced to Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who explains via voiceover that he works as an unusual kind of contract killer in the early 2040s. Time travel doesn’t exist yet, but it will be invented soon only to be immediately outlawed, thus paving the way for a black-market practice in which criminal overlords ship their victims to the past to be immediately blown away and incinerated by people like Joe. Strikingly paid per corpse in bricks of gold and silver, the assassins, or “loopers,” enjoy a lifestyle that most any young man would envy: stylish duds (patterned, in a nifty joke, on 20th-century movies), readily available gorgeous women, primo drugs, and plenty of free time. It’s an ideal life for any amoral young man who thinks he’ll live forever (which is to say, most young, somewhat moneyed American men), but there’s one macabre catch: These killers are called loopers because they’re eventually, so as to ensure this practice’s secrecy, required to “close their own loop,” which is to say that the final hit of their career is the future version of themselves.
Needless to say that’s a mouthful, and that’s not including a number of other conceits, such as the existence of mild telekinesis, a practice of self-scarring, as well as a brutal form of retribution that’s visited upon the loopers should they welch on the final clause of their contract. If you’re familiar with writer-director Rian Johnson’s prior films, Brick and The Brothers Bloom, then you can be forgiven for assuming that Looper will collapse under the weight of its gimmickry. The first act, while boasting a compellingly nihilistic atmosphere that’s been influenced by existentialist French crime epics, is also a bit of a convoluted slog.
The Brothers Bloom was hopelessly mannered, but there were moments in Brick that suggested a poetic David Lynchian metaphor for teen abuse, an impression that was significantly bolstered by Levitt’s heartbreaking work, which recalled his prior, much greater, performance in Mysterious Skin. Looper is a wonderful surprise because the filmmaker partially fulfills the promise he showed in Brick. Johnson gradually pars his film of narrative artifices as they become unnecessary, allowing a confident but routine future-shock thriller to evolve into an elegant and moving western.
The plot never makes much sense (why would a looper be charged with killing himself, as that leads to an obvious and avoidable conflict of interest?), but Johnson’s surprising moral urgency compensates to a considerable degree. Time travel is never more than a device that he utilizes in order to get two incarnations of the same man in the same room at the same time. Joe is inevitably called upon to off his future self, and Old Joe (Bruce Willis) is inevitably a more difficult target than Young Joe could imagine. In a plot thread straight from The Terminator, Old Joe is intent on killing a child in the 2040s who will grow up in the 2070s to become the Rainmaker, a mysterious über-criminal intent on prematurely closing all loops.
But Looper is really a parable of self-absorption, a story of a man looking himself in the eyes and coming to the startling realization that he’s allowed himself to become a monster. Johnson’s deft script initially splits your sympathies, as it’s difficult, at first, to tell which Joe is more emotionally centered. Old Joe eventually commits despicable acts that could be rationalized as potentially altering history for the better, but he’s really acting out of a desire to save the woman he will eventually fall in love with. Young Joe, in parallel, is forced on a collision course by his older self that enables him to achieve a measure of social awareness earlier than initially fated, which renders Old Joe’s disgusting quest moot.
It’s refreshing to see an action film this concerned with the actual consequences of violence. The loopers’ killings are jolting, and the third act pivots around the prevention of a murder that explicitly wrestles, admittedly simply, with notions of nature versus nurture. Most pop films, particularly in the vigilante-dominated action genre, embrace a devious form of self-gratification at all costs, but Looper slyly inserts an element of wounded longing among the instances of bloodshed.
The image varies. The cityscapes boast sharp blacks and blues, but sequences set in the farmhouse and dilapidated portions of the city aren't as crisp as they could be, and certain close-ups of the actors' faces have a similar issue. The image is never bad, but one can't help but sense that it could be better. The 5.1 Dolby Digital surround track, however, offers a clean and dense mix, and the action beats are rendered with particularly strong resonance.
In their audio commentary, director Rian Johnson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Emily Blunt offer traditional making-of anecdotes about the sets, casting choices, and general inspiration for the film. Johnson unsurprisingly dominates the proceedings, but all three participants are likeable and make for an engaging, if unremarkable, listen. The deleted scenes and making-of featurette are entirely forgettable, save for the fact of confirming for certain Looper geeks that Abe and Kid Blue are definitely not the same person. "Scoring Looper" is probably the best feature, as it provides interesting details on the number of household sounds that were used to fashion the film's distinctive score. A Looper animated trailer also offers a refreshingly imaginative alternative to a DVD's often obligatory trailer inclusion.
Looper injects the sci-fi actioneer with a much-needed jolt of moral consciousness.