WARNING: This post contains plot spoilers. If you have not seen this film, read on at your own discretion.
If one found Rian Johnson's first two features Brick and Brothers Bloom to be an example of style over substance, the futuristic setting of Looper will be a welcome setting; the future is a place where excess is always realistic.
Set in an unnamed 2044 city in Kansas that looks like New York City popped up on the outskirts of a cornfield, the city consists of as many tents as skyscrapers; the haves primarily work for the mob in the future, an organization run by Abe (Jeff Daniels) who has two tiers of enforcers -- "loopers" and "gat men." The loopers wait in the cornfield for men to appear out of thin air: assassination targets from the future, sent back in time 30 years to be disposed of without a trace in their present. In the future, time travel is outlawed but utilized by the mafia. The targets' hands are tied, a canvas bag over their head, almost arriving in meditation, with payment of silver bars for their killers.
Loopers use a cannon type gun called a "blunderbuss," which any fool can operate. It can't miss from 15 feet. It's an easy job: it only requires a numbed state of being on the part of the assassin. The team of loopers seem numb as it is: They are addicted to some sort of drug that seems like a combination of cocaine and heroin that is dropped in the eyes. They frequent prostitutes for human contact, and wait for their contract to be terminated by killing their future selves when the mob sends them back to "close their loop" and then knowing that they have 30 years to live. That final kill (of future self) is sent back in time with gold bars instead of silver.
Our introduction to this lifestyle is from Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who tells us that those who become loopers "don't have the most foresight." (However, knowing you have an exact 30 years to live seems like it would provide foresight, and indeed Joe is learning French and saving silver for his retirement in France instead of just banking on his final gold payment -- despite being instructed by Abe, who is from the future, to "go to China.") The other wing of Abe's team are the gat men, who are armed with handguns for precision and are rewarded for their skill (except for Kid Blue (Noah Segan), who constantly blunders operations, but only wants acknowledgement from Abe).
Joe does end up being face-to-face with his future self (Bruce Willis) who curiously arrives without a bag over his head, and with very loose ties on his wrists. Being Willis, he easily overpowers Gordon-Levitt and is on the run. Old Joe needs his younger self to stay alive, though, to complete his revenge-fueled mission. Thirty years have given the same person different priorities: Willis (who instead of going to France, followed Abe's advice and went to China but became a junkie-mobster, only redeemed by his wife) wants to kill the person responsible for killing his wife so that he can be with her again. Gordon-Levitt wants to kill Willis so that he can live out his 30 years instead of being killed himself.
There is a great scene in a diner where the two meet over steak and eggs. It's great because it doesn't fall into the trap of future-self meeting younger-self and giving advice, or jokes about the other going bald: The older and younger self hate each other for being in the way of what they need to accomplish. In a meta-move Johnson has Gordon-Levitt ask Willis how time travel works, and Willis responds that they don't have the time to break it down with straws and diagrams, it just works. It's a nice wink to the audience just having to accept the modus operandi that Johnson has created, but the rules of multiple time lines and revenge don't seem to actually align seamlessly.
If you can accept the rules at face value, Looper is an entertaining yarn that shifts into two stories for the final act. Willis is in revenge mode and takes on the whole mafia in a scene that makes me wish Willis' action persona was utilized more than once. Gordon-Levitt goes through drug withdrawals and humanization in the cornfields at the edge of a young mother's property (Emily Blunt) where the showdown between old self and young self will inevitably play out.
Despite a plotline involving time travel, Looper is more of a futuristic film than sci-fi noir. Johnson has created a future where the youth were let down by previous generations, and can only realistically choose to be bad because survival is done by doing the bidding of a corrupt system in the future (entities "too big to fail"): Joe was abandoned by his mother and taken in by Abe; Willis will kill his future wife's killer even though 30 years prior that future killer will be a young child; Kid Blue is desperately seeking a father figure in Abe; Sara (the young mother) abandoned her child previously, but has come back to try to make it right.
The act of her determination to come back to her child and raise him correctly is the central conceit of Looper: Future generations will be directionless unless we return to instilling good in children instead of success. For a quasi-action movie that under-calculates the audience's charge at seeing Willis go medieval on the mafia's ass, it's welcome to have a message behind the plot sacrifice of additional Bruce carnage. That message also becomes a bit too overwrought when Kid Blue's determination to please a father figure makes him an unnecessary addition to the showdown between the two Joes.
Still, with a few exceptions, Johnson's flourishes (such as telekinesis being a diagnosed trait in the future) tie back into his narrative. With Looper Johnson is showing us a relatable version of our future, instead of merely showing off.
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