In Rian Johnson’s sleek new film, Looper, time travel is a weapon of the future. Most notably, it’s a tool used in 2074 by criminal organizations looking to silence the people who pose a risk to their unlawful operations. The manipulation of time is an unlawful act, but since when has a law deterred criminals from acting unscrupulously? Once acquired, all targets shift back to present day (2044) ,where an assassin, also known as a ‘looper’, waits patiently in an open field with a powerful shotgun. The result is a quick death, one that affords a looper with a collection of silver bars, which are conveniently strapped to the back of their future born victim. The life of a looper is great, assuming they don’t mind snuffing out another human life. Demonstrating the irresistible life of a looper is Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a handsome gunman drunk from the life killing has provided him. There’s a level of empathy in Joe, but his dependency on drugs cloud the vision of a decent human being.
Despite his personal problems, Joe’s career is booming, but his life takes a turn for the worse when his future self (Bruce Willis) lands in front of him, set for death by his own trigger finger. Caught off guard by seeing his future personified, Joe succumbs to his elder’s craftiness and loses his intended target. With his future self on the run, Joe is viciously pursued by his employer, Abe (Jeff Daniels), a man hell-bent on correcting the ripple in time. So, not only is Joe running from the very mob that employs him, but he’s also chasing down a man who knows his every move. Invariably, Joe’s efforts are akin to a dog chasing his tail. Amidst the film’s twisty plot and taut action sequences, Joe finds a solution to his efforts through a chance encounter with a farm woman named Sara (Emily Blunt). Now, I refuse to say any more about the plot because it delivers a plethora of surprises, most of which revolve around the varying character wrinkles that exist between Joe’s current existence and his future embodiment. Caring more about character and story, Johnson smartly peppers the screenplay with a handful of scenes that force the audience to sympathize and align themselves with both incarnations of Joe. Each of their stories, which are both independent and dependent of one another, are captivating and tremendously acted.
Levitt’s guidance of his character’s arc is impressive as he takes his incarnation of Joe from a drug addled contract killer to a selfless being that looks beyond himself, especially when his life is on the line in more ways than one. On the other end of Levitt’s performance is Bruce Willis, who arguably delivers a career defining performance. Where Levitt’s character is trying to protect his future, Willis’ incarnation of Joe is deeply invested in preserving his past. Needless to say, Willis reeks of an emotional desperation that elicits a surprising emotional attachment from us. Future Joe behaves in a way that poses large questions about morality, but no matter how heinous the question is, Willis forces us to consider the reasoning behind his character’s motives. Stemming from the internal battle between the time separated Joe’s, are a variety of themes that revolve around self-sacrifice, changing the beads of time, and man’s inherent problems when it comes to avoiding ill-fated habits. Johnson certainly delivers an interesting premise, but his thematic explorations make Looper far and above a typical action film.
I truly appreciate the fact that Johnson refuses to undermine his film’s themes with a gimmicky approach. Instead, he lets the story flow uninhibited. No twisted logic, no discussion of multiple time lines, and no spoon fed explanations are found in Johnson’s air-tight script. Rather, Looper is a smart, effective thriller that knows it has material far more captivating than its science fiction premise. Sure, Johnson’s directorial gusto gives way to cool shots and explosive action, some of which feature dizzying camera movements and tension building slow motion, but those aspects of Looper pale in comparison to the character and thematic triumphs on display. Honestly, the verbal chess match between Levitt and Willis is unequivocally the best material Looper has to offer. For once, the concept doesn’t abandon the heart or head; it supplements them.