Rian Johnson’s “Looper” is a phenomenal science-fiction film, full of tantalizing ideas and, more importantly, confident about how to use them. Its story centers around time travel and the violent intersection of an assassin and an older version of himself, a conflict captured through an insidiously clever scenario that allows for alternating scenes of thrilling action and thought-provoking character work.
The aforementioned assassin is Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an eponymous “looper” in the year 2044. Joe makes a grisly living executing people sent back in time from 2074 — the way that criminal syndicates dispose of targets. Each bound and hooded victim, greeted with a shotgun blast to the chest, comes with a load of silver strapped to their back.
There’s a serious catch: eventually, the victim will be the looper’s future self, carrying bars of gold. The looper retires, then has 30 years to enjoy the fruits of their labor before they are sent back in time to be executed by themselves, in a process called “closing the loop.” When a looper fails to kill their future self, it’s called “letting your loop run.” This is exactly what happens when Old Joe (Bruce Willis) arrives in the present, untied and without a hood, and escapes execution, hell-bent on an unknown mission (the film makes clear that time travel can easily alter the future). This sends the mob, headed by a pragmatic gangster (Jeff Daniels) from 2074, into overdrive trying to kill both of Joe’s incarnations.
What follows is a series of chases and action sequences, both plentiful and exciting. But most interesting are scenes in which Young Joe and Old Joe try to mentally outmaneuver one another, a process made exponentially more complicated by the effects of time travel. This game of cat and older cat eventually leads them both to a farm occupied by Sara (Emily Blunt), a shotgun-wielding single mother, and her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon). Young Joe bonds with the pair, gaining a concern for others that gives him a motivation equal to Old Joe’s.
With its clever premise, “Looper” is able to address the notion that humans become different people over the years, and does so with a surprising lack of sentiment. Young Joe treats Old Joe not as a version of himself, but as a fatal inconvenience, a selfish interloper who threatens his well-deserved retirement. He has no major qualms about killing his older self, whom he first sees as a meal-ticket, and later, something more tragic. Old Joe sees the other as a pathetic, strung-out addict, devoid of purpose and stubbornly refusing to cooperate. They do little in the way of discussing philosophy or comparing notes, but their confrontations do lead to a profound realization on the younger man’s part that lends the proceedings a thematic clarity.
Gordon-Levitt, face fitted with impeccable makeup effects so that he more closely resembles Willis, continues to establish his brand as that of an actor with a serious interest in turning in superlative work in high-quality films. Here, he nails what is perhaps his most complex role ever as a bad man whose confrontation with self leads to a strange form of moral introspection. Willis, one of the screen’s most prolific and underrated presences, also gives one of his great performances as a capable man driven to evil in pursuit of canceling out what he sees as something worse.
The film’s ideas are myriad but wholly organic, never overwhelming the story or getting in the way of its players. While science-fiction films must innately feature ideas about the possibilities of the universe, the great ones recognize that these ideas are only pertinent because people exist to have them. The genre often suffers as filmmakers lose sight of the people that make the ideas resonant, but “Looper,” a truly great work, always keeps human concerns at its forefront.