If one found the stylistic excesses of Rian Johnson’s first two films shallow and meaningless, the conclusion of Looper should come on like a revelation. Set in 2044, the film’s criminal-ridden dystopia is decked out with all sorts of futuristic gadgetry and seemingly useless nuance: computer pads and screens as thin as glass, telekinesis, hyper-stylized drugs and weaponry, hover-cycles, floating crop dusters, and, yes, time travel. Even more alarming are the use of overtly familiar genre tropes, from meeting your future self to an odd relationship with a precocious child to a dimwitted assassin in need of a father figure. It’s the stuff that routinely calcifies one’s cynicism toward pop filmmaking, but Johnson sets these facets into motion with such a deft and intricate sense of storytelling, such a bold, robust emotional palette, that one is rather reminded of what made these tiresome tropes so successful in the first place.
Time traveling is, of course, the film’s central conceit. Given the title “looper,” young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) arrives in a rural field outside of the poverty-stricken city every day and waits for his victims to appear, executing them with a quick shot from his enormous gun (referred to here as his “blunderbuss”) and tossing them into an incinerator. In return, he’s given payloads of silver and gold, strapped to the back of each victim. The only catch is that, at some point, every looper must “close the loop” and kill their future self to ensure secrecy, a stipulation that Joe has trouble with when his older self (Bruce Willis) arrives and escapes his certain fate, leaving him beaten, poor, and on the lam from his employer, a slovenly hood named Abe (Jeff Daniels).
His escape, however, isn’t merely to ensure his own livelihood, but rather to ensure the demise of a mysterious crime lord from the future, the Rainmaker, who, when preparing to send older Joe back, killed Joe’s wife (Qing Xu) and now has plans to erase the existence of all loopers. It’s convoluted, to say the least, but Johnson, working with editor Bob Ducsay, gives the rush of these jumps in time a remarkable, lively flow that at once helps form the backbone of the narrative and exude the confusion felt by both Joes. Of the film’s many virtues, its pacing may be at once the most elusive and most crucial to its triumph.
It also allows for a clearer back and forth in the film’s second half, as both Joes evade Abe and his minions, the older Joe seeking out the young version of the Rainmaker and younger Joe taking up with a young mother (Emily Blunt) and her son (Pierce Gagnon) while he formulates a plan to deal with his older, vengeful self. And what’s most striking about Looper is how effectively and clearly each character’s emotional struggle is detailed, a feat that seems near-impossible as the various figures are introduced in the film’s first half. Nearly every character has a raging conflict within them (Daniels’s Abe is perhaps the lone exception) and Johnson fluidly presents these conflicts and resolves them in completely unique and often visually dazzling ways, from both Joes to Blunt’s haunted mother to Gagnon’s brooding, quixotic boy wonder.
Johnson even extends this care to crafting exquisite secondary characters, including Piper Perabo’s world-weary prostitute and three doomed loopers, played superbly by Paul Dano, Noah Segan, and the great Garret Dillahunt. There’s a sense of a full and detailed community within this gathering that, along with the Kansas setting, suggests a positively electric melding of western and science-fiction tropes into a hugely entertaining and rambunctious B movie.
Some of the flair is just for style (the blunderbusses didn’t have to look like they could, indeed, kill God), but it’s certainly not to the detriment of the film’s considerable, surprising substance. The makeup Gordon-Levitt dons to appear more like Willis, for instance, is arguably not integral to the story, but it adds a minor expressionistic twist to their conflict. They are the same person with the same basic proclivity for murder, with only the thin veil of perceived wisdom differentiating them, and Johnson’s externalizing of this similarity underlines that point beautifully.
As in the very best Anthony Mann and John Ford westerns, Looper at once understands the visual power of violence and is deeply critical of it. Chests are regularly blown out, torture and pain are used to gain information, and, in one scene of deeply unsettling horror, an older looper is taken apart piece by piece as a mob doctor maims and amputates his younger self. But Johnson’s view of these ultra-violent loners isn’t in any way glorified: These are weak, ruthless men, constantly concerned with the hurt that’s inflicted on them, and rarely with the hurt they inflict. If a final act of martyrdom is perhaps a nod to heroism, it’s only a slight one, and Johnson doesn’t harp on it for all that long. Instead, the resonating feeling left by Looper is of a culture decayed by guns and murder, and those singular moments when people have the propensity to put one’s self secondary to the community. Without false heroism or rhetoric, the film demonstrates that violence is not an element of chance, but a choice made by men who don’t have the will to do better, no matter the reason. That is, until one of them does.