It is the year 2044. Time travel has not been invented yet. But it will be. Thirty years from now a powerful crime syndicate employ time machines as a means of catapulting enemies back into the past where they are summarily executed by hit men known as Loopers. One such looper is Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Killing for the mob has made him a small fortune which he hopes will bring him a bright future. But every looper has a clause in their contract. At the end of their service for the syndicate, they must execute their own future self. It is called “closing the loop.” When Joe unexpectedly confronts his future self (Bruce Willis), he is overpowered as the old guy goes on the run. Turns out Old Joe has a plan to safeguard his future, which involves tracking down a mysterious little boy (Pierce Gagnon) with a dark secret, living with single mother Sara (Emily Blunt) on a lone homestead.
All time travel movies, no matter how meticulously thought out, require a strong suspension of disbelief. It is a simple fact their plots rely less on whatever pseudo-scientific logic has been concocted than on the faith invested by an audience. Those viewers that sought to pick apart the mechanics of writer-director Rian Johnson’s central conceit had less fun than those willing to run with its outlandish ideas who had their faith repaid ten-fold. Johnson stages a whole host of alternately amusing and unsettling variations on the central temporal paradox, from an amusing diner scene where the two Joes glower at each other over identical breakfast orders, to a horrific sequence where an old fugitive sees his limbs go missing, one by one, as the mob torture his younger self.
However, Johnson wisely packs a whole host of other ideas beyond the core time travel conceit including a third act swerve into Akira (1988) territory and a subplot vaguely reminiscent of “It’s A Good Life”, the famous Jerome Bixby-scripted episode of The Twilight Zone, later remade by Joe Dante in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). Indeed, although ostensibly a slam-bang sci-fi actioner, Looper is a surprisingly melancholy, sensitive and agreeably contemplative movie. Rather than go the expected route of having the older, more experienced incarnation of Joe try to steer his younger self towards a happier life, Johnson poses a more provocative question: what would you do to protect the life you had built? How far would you go? These questions hover over both incarnations of Joe, but we also sense them bubbling under the surface in young Cid, the character played by remarkable child actor Pierce Gagnon. This desperation to safeguard lives and loved ones drives the characters towards some dark decisions. Johnson boldly risks losing audience sympathy by having his flawed heroes commit some unforgivable acts, though he stresses that it sickens them to do so. Only towards the finale does one key character attain a vision of how everything fits into the grand scheme of things, the realisation that only a selfless act can puncture an endless loop driven by self-interest.
Following on from Johnson’s earlier, equally idiosyncratic features Brick (2005) and The Brothers Bloom (2008), the writer-director flexes his creative muscles with an array of inspired, near-wordless set-pieces that rank as remarkably eloquent examples of pure cinema. For all its bravura set-pieces though, Looper proves an agreeably character and performance driven film. Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are each outstanding, with the latter doing a far subtler imitation of the action icon than the prosthetic makeup suggests. He is genuinely affecting as the sensitive, more vulnerable incarnation of Joe. Gordon-Levitt’s partnership with Johnson is fast shaping into something special and between this, The Dark Knight Rises and Lincoln, the ever-watchable star enjoyed one heck of a 2012. Equally superb are Emily Blunt and gifted youngster Gagnon, both responding to characters more offbeat with more depth than is common in high-concept sci-fi fare. Bruce Willis fans will relish one priceless sequence that has him revert to Die Hard mode, going all guns blazing against the mob, but Looper’s greatest strengths are those quiet, contemplative moments when it surprises you.