In the film’s universe, loopers are contract killers who take out targets sent from the future. Amidst this dystopian setting, established through shots of inner-city decay and misery, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (50/50, The Dark Knight Rises) plays Joe, a looper whose amoral existence as a hitman is compounded by his decadent lifestyle as a junkie. We get to see Joe in action a few times, and the scene is always the same: Joe waits in a field, the mark suddenly materializes on a blanket, and Joe immediately blows that person away.
The rationale for this method of execution isn’t especially convincing: We’re told — by Joe’s narrator — that disposing of bodies is difficult in the future. I guess that means there are no furnaces, because that’s just how Joe and his fellow loopers get rid of their victims.
Being a looper comes with a significant downside: After 30 years, the aged killer is sent back in time to be executed by his younger self — a process called “closing the loop.” To make the act more palatable, the older versions are sent with gold or silver bars strapped to them as payment. I’ll extend some suspension of disbelief and grant that it makes sense for a looper to kill his future self so that he is assured of receiving the payment. But it isn’t clear to me why the crime syndicate heading this nasty operation doesn’t have different loopers kill one another, and keep most of the payment for itself. Because one of the problems, as you might anticipate, with being forced to murder oneself, is that one can reasonably understand the temptation to back out.
Joe finds himself in just that predicament when his future self (played by Bruce Willis) appears in the field. Despite recognizing himself and being momentarily startled, Joe shoots anyway. From this point, Looper quickly tracks the arc of Joe’s life into his older self through montage before returning to the present they occupy together. Old Joe, who found a saving love, is bent on killing the Rainmaker, a mob overlord who somehow singlehandedly eliminates all the other crime bosses in the future and is responsible for the death of Old Joe’s wife. There’s an altruistic motive to his unsavory mission — killing the child version of the Rainmaker won’t affect his life, since he’s already lived it past the point that his loved one dies. But it can help his younger self.
And yet there’s no consideration of how the slightest events can affect how subsequent events unfold. The ideas of destiny and inevitability are ripe for investigation — not that I’m expecting this film or any other film to take a definitive position on these subjects — but Looper isn’t even clear about its own ambiguity.
On a dramatic level, there’s very little in the exchanges between the two Joes that convey any desire for understanding. And the movie, scripted and directed by Rian Johnson (Brick), doesn’t even explore what would seem to be the most basic allure of the film — the mindblowing experience of confronting a time-shifted version of yourself.
While the elder Joe is off to complete his mission, the younger Joe is in possession of a map devised by his future self, with each location marking what could be the childhood home of the Rainmaker. Joe stakes out one of those locations, a farm occupied by a young woman (Emily Blunt) and her young son, Cid. The actor playing Cid, Pierce Gagnon, is remarkable, and whoever managed to get such a nuanced performance out of the boy, be it director Johnson or someone else, deserves much praise.
Despite the good performances by the leads, and a couple of engaging sequences, Looper can’t transcend its conceit. Another film where time travel figures prominently, The Terminator, isn’t immune from criticisms of its paradoxes, but it rises above them through the power of its storytelling. Here, the concept overwhelms the story.