Time travel has always been an interesting concept to me, especially when it is an integral part of the story, using the brain-twisting logic and possibility of paradoxes that come with it to great effect. But the flipside of that is when stories become so obsessed with how time travel could conceivably work that they get lost in an ocean of minutia and half-baked science, leaving the story lost without a life jacket.
Which is why “Looper,” the surprisingly poignant and thoughtful sci-fi noir from Rian Johnson, the mastermind behind the Raymond Chandler high school rewrite “Brick,” is such a breath of fresh air. The film definitely does have its fair-share of time-travel mythology, but this movie goes in directions you may not expect, creating a stylish, entertaining action movie, that morphs into a low-key human drama when you least expect it.
It’s 2044. America, at least Kansas for the sake of this movie, is a worn-down wasteland, the flashes of new technology, such as hover cars and the phenomenon of having 10 percent of the population being telekenetic, are lost in the broken-down, eroded landscape (the set design owes a heavy debt to “Blade Runner”). Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a “looper” a hitman who wields an old-school blunderbuss rifle to kill people sent back in time from 2074. In the future, time travel is possible but highly illegal and bodies are impossible to dispose of, so the mob sends victims to the past, thus erasing them from existence. Joe is charming and confident on the surface, but underneath he’s a drug-addicted wreck, only caring about his own self-preservation and trying desperately for a relationship with a caring stripper (Piper Perabo). He saves the bars of silver he receives with every hit, hoping to run away to France and fix his life.
That self-preservation is tested when the future’s mysterious crime boss The Rainmaker decides to close all the loops by sending loopers’ future selves back for the requisite blunderbuss blast to the head (that’s still the rifle, not the Jack White solo album). This results in a major pay day and a release from their contracts, but there’s also the little thing with knowing the exact day and time you will meet your demise, which is hell on your psyche, just ask Paul Dano.
So when it’s Joe’s turn to dispose of his future self (Bruce Willis), Older Joe gets the drop on him, and now Young Joe is being chased by his underworld employers, led by the future exile Abe (Jeff Daniels), and he must chase his older self and keep him from killing the child who may or may not grow up to be The Rainmaker, thus changing everyone’s destiny.
The trailers made this look like a standard sci-fi chase, but Johnson throws a major monkey wrench into the second half of “Looper,” which takes place on a farm owned by Sara (Emily Blunt), who’s son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) is on Old Joe’s target list for Rainmaker possibilities. There are the requisite shootouts, and a fantastic scene between the two Joes where they lay out their diverging life goals, using their shared experiences against each other. But Johnson, as he showed in “Brick” and to a lesser extent in the slightly underwhelming “The Brothers Bloom”, has a gift for unusual worlds with crazy-quilt plots, but his work never loses its soul, even with his dazzling visual style on display.
“Looper” has a unique, humorous approach to the conundrums of time travel, acknowledging the paradoxes and brain-frying logic required to parse through all of it. It’s impossible to tell a time-travel story that doesn’t have paradoxes or gaps in logic, and “Looper acknowledges the mysteries that go with time travel. This makes the film more of a character piece because it isn’t saddled with such jargon.
The second half of this film, with Young Joe hiding out on Sara’s farm, trying to protect Sara and Cid, is such a refreshing change of pace because so many modern movies are on such an attention-deficit bent that they keep throwing explosions and incident on the screen until the life has been sucked out of the story. Rian Johnson deserves a lot of credit for following through on his narrative thread the top priority. Old Joe’s story, told in a flashback to an alternate timeline, is like a short silent film, as we see Joe dive deeper in the abyss of drug abuse until he is saved by a Chinese woman who becomes his savior until she is killed by the Rainmaker. Willis, who was also excellent in “Moonrise Kingdom” earlier this year, does some of his most subtle, affecting work in years, showing how true love can drive a man to selling his soul and changing the course of history to make himself feel better.
Young Joe, given grit and an understated presence by Gordon-Levitt, who wears prosthetics and fake contacts to look like a young Bruce Willis and even adopts some of his mannerisms but never takes the turn toward parody (he’s the most reliable American actor right now), develops his own relationship with Sara, played by a surprisingly effective Blunt (the woman knows how to swing that ax), a weary single mother who tries to raise Cid the best she can, but without diving into spoilers, is harder than it sounds, because Cid is a highly unusual (and potentially dangerous) five-year-old. It’s hard to gauge performances from actors that young, but Gagnon is a terrifying young screen presence. He becomes the lynch pin in the fates of everyone involved as the final denouement brings everything together in an immensely satisfying final confrontation that closes all of the film’s narrative loops, while still leaving room for mystery and speculation.
That mystery is why I can’t wait to watch “Looper” again, to figure out how Johnson dug his rabbit hole. It touches on themes of loyalty, nature vs. nurture (bringing up the old scenario: if you could kill Hitler as a baby, would you?) and self-sacrifice, creating moments of poignancy not often seen in this most clinical of genres (as Adam Kempenaar, the host of the Filmspotting podcast pointed out, this movie does have one of the best booty calls in the history of time involving two electronic frogs). Nobody gets away clean whether they are outrunning their destiny, or trying to understand that destiny before it comes to pass. There are shades of crime noir and even the legendary 1988 anime “Akira,” but Johnson has his own voice, and “Looper” is a major step forward. This is a kinetic puzzle-box that never loses its humanity or its cool.