High concept movies like Looper usually squander their enormous potential once they’ve wowed us with the basic idea. They set things up brilliantly, then hit auto-pilot and settle in to the predictable routine of car chases and shoot-em-ups. Looper defiantly refuses to fall into that trap. Every time we think we know where it’s going – every time the door opens into another generic actioner with a kinda-neat idea propping it up – it pivots 180 degrees and sprints in the opposite direction. Director Rian Johnson throws a lot at the screen and it gets a little messy around the edges sometimes. But it all fits together in the most surprising ways, and the smart idea at the center blossoms into an equally smart movie.
It starts with the protagonist, who we want to like and who in a more conventional film we would. He lives in the year 2044, where he works as a “looper” for the Kansas City mob. In another thirty years, someone’s going to invent time travel, but only the Mafia will have access to it. (This requires a leap of faith, and if you can’t accept that, you needn’t bother purchasing a ticket.) They use it to make bodies disappear by sending living victims back in time. The loopers kill them and dispose of the corpses, so there’s no evidence in the future to implicate anyone. (It’s a fairly limited use of an awesome technology, but one assumes the mobsters also lay the occasional bet, Biff Tannen style.)
Our resident looper Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has no problems buying in to that pattern. He even accepts the loopers’ “retirement plan,” where they send your older self back in time strapped to a big pile of gold. You shoot him and have thirty years to spend it all before they come calling to complete the circuit. Seems like a square deal to him… only his older self(Bruce Willis) doesn’t agree. So when he finally gets sent back, he’s ready: he beats young Joe up and takes his car, heading off into the Kansas prairie for God knows what purpose.
It’s bad news when a looper runs like that, as the film displays in thoroughly grotesque terms. But Johnson has also worked out why exactly old Joe has developed second thoughts, as well as larger events in the future that could offer him a way out. Looper frames the time travel conceit in new and fascinating terms, while expanding on the clever idea of seeing how career criminals make use of such technology. It’s amusing watching low-rent button men try to parse their way through cause-effect paradoxes (to paraphrase Willis, “we’ll be sitting her for hours drawing diagrams with straws”), while the capo di capo (Jeff Daniels in a surprisingly convincing performance) tells them to shut up and do their jobs.
Beyond that, however, Looper devotes considerable logic to seeing how far it can go with its concepts. No detail remains too trivial, as seeming trifles in this future world actually carry significant importance, and everything we think we know turns out to be dead wrong. Not only does it move the script in truly unexpected directions, but it gives us new and fascinating ideas to chew on in every scene. In the end, all our questions are answered and all the conflicts resolved, but the path to get there holds enough fodder for weeks’ worth of thoughtful conversation.
And Looper doesn’t limit its creativity to high-minded sci-fi . Our sympathies constantly shift back and forth as we look for a hero that simply doesn’t exist in this world. It’s hard-edged and nasty, with men divided into predators and prey with no real room for morality. Young Joe lives only for the moment, while old Joe quickly slips into monstrous behavior he claims he’s outgrown. Both have the seeds of goodness in them, yet both chose to ignore them in pointedly different ways. The see-saw between them maintains the suspense just as readily as the plot machinations… especially when a seemingly innocent soul ends up in the middle of their conflict.
That conflict remains firmly in place throughout the film, yet another place where Looper defies our expectations. We keep waiting for that moment when the two Joes will team up and fight the “real” bad guys. It never comes and the film is all the better for it. It doesn’t limit that trick to the two main actors, but spreads it out across its entire universe: as rich and fascinating a playground as we’ve seen in the movies this year. Films this sharp always seems to come out of left field – cloaked in a modest budget and slipping into theaters more or less under the radar. But when it’s done right, it turns our every expectation on its ear, and reminds us that science fiction can still be about ideas rather than spaceships and laser blasts. Looper proudly demonstrates how far a little intelligence can go, and never looks for shortcuts along the way. The only thing we can complain about is why we don’t see its like more often.