Writing about time travel movies can often be a challenge. Not only are they usually difficult to explain, but the very thing that makes them difficult is what also makes them a kick to watch. The conundrums, the paradoxes, the surprises that arise from the participants doubling back on themselves, changing their fates, and altering the course of history as they know it. In fact, there couldn't be a more perfect title for Rian Johnson's new film than Looper. It's a movie that keeps turning on itself, achieving Inception-level contradictions and revelations, and you're going to love watching it go around and around like a ferris wheel all lit up with neon lights.
Looper is set in 2044, several decades before time travel is invented. But that's the trick of time travel, you see, it can be put to use to deal with events that happened before it even existed. And people in the past can be aware it is coming. In this reality, for instance, since time travel has been outlawed in the future, only outlaws use it. The criminal underworld has found a great way to get rid of bodies: they send their victims back across the timestream, where an assassin is waiting to finish the job and dispose of the body. These triggermen are called "loopers," because it's a job with a completion date. At some point during your contract, the bosses of tomorrow will send you your golden parachute today. Your time is up, you've closed the loop.
One such looper is Joe, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, recently seen in The Dark Knight Rises and also the star of Rian Johnson's superb debut film Brick. (He likewise had a cameo in Johnson's criminally overlooked The Brothers Bloom.) Joe is good at his job. He was homeless when he got it, another kid lost in a timeline where the economy appears to have gone in the tank even harder than it has at the moment. Joe is learning French and stockpiling the silver ingots he earns as his fee so he can go to Paris when retirement comes. He is well liked by his supervisor, a gangster from the future sent back to watch over everything. Jeff Daniels chews up the role, clearly enjoying being able to cut lose and be a cerebral bad guy. He even strikes Joe a deal when one of Joe's friends (Paul Dano, Ruby Sparks) screws up. This makes Joe think he can make things right when he screws up himself.
The worst thing a looper can do is not kill the marked man sent his way. This is what happens to Joe when he is sent a condemned future Bruce Willis playing, essentially, the mega-dangerous Bruce Willis-type. Think Die Hard by way of Twelve Monkeys. Bruce knocks him out and goes on the lam. Joe is now in trouble with his gang, and he wants to catch the fugitive first and prove he didn't do it on purpose. Things go further wrong, as they are wont to do, and Joe eventually ends up hiding out on a farm with a woman (Emily Blunt, Five-Year Engagement) and her child (Pierce Gagnon, TV's "One Tree Hill"), who are connected to the future man yet don't know they are in trouble.
And that's about all I am willing to say. Any more, and the comments section is going to light up with an angry mob carrying pitchforks and torches and demanding my head. To be honest, I actually knew less than that before going into the screening of Looper, I just needed to see that Rian Johnson was writing and directing, and I was sold on this one. I've since seen the TV commercials and am kind of surprised the marketing isn't holding back more than it is. If you haven't seen the trailer, don't bother. Stay clean! Looper is a corker of a film, one that never stops being inventive and that keeps you guessing from start to finish. You want to be able to watch it the first time and just be along for the ride; debating story and looking for hidden plot details is best left for the second and third time, if you can even stop there. When Looper ended, I'd have happily hopped in a time machine and gone back two hours to start watching it again.
Because even forgetting about all the "what the hell just happened?" moments, Looper is that good a film. It's a smart action thriller that has laughs, shocks, and even some heartfelt, tearful moments. It's superbly acted by a stellar cast--young Pierce Gagnon is one of the best child actors I've seen in a while, particularly for playing a role that is as dark as Cid--and artfully directed by an auteur in full command of his craft. Johnson knows when and how to cut, making sure that the action is always exciting and yet also knowing when he needs to give his actors the spotlight and let them make his words come alive. There is an intense scene between Willis and Gordon-Levitt in a diner where, once the performers lock down, they completely own the screen. You could probably build a whole movie out of them just talking. My Dinner with John McClane.
On top of the good stuff I have said already, the best thing I can say about Looper is that Rian Johnson manages to dig himself into a deep hole, but he makes sure to carry with him all the tools he needs to climb out. Looper is not a time travel film that falls under its own weight, tangled up in all of its twists and convolutions; it's a movie with a real pay-off. It tells a complete story that includes a satisfying ending. Go into Looper and give it your trust. Every curveball it throws out at you has a reason behind it. Even when you think the script has just made a silly move or Johnson has gotten too fancy playing with style, keep trusting it. Every little bit comes back around.