This stylish sci-fi noir has a mind-bending premise: Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a guy living in Kansas in 2044 who was hired as a hitman by the local mob boss, played by Jeff Daniels. Joe’s job is a supremely simple one: wait in a corn field at a specific time… I mean a really specific time, like down to the second, and when a masked and bound man appears out of thin air, blow him away. You see, up in the future, in 2074, they invented time travel, and the government outlawed it. The only people using it are criminal organizations who feel it’s cleaner, when then need to disappear someone, to really disappear them. Into the past, where they get blasted with a “blunderbuss” and dropped into a furnace. So, right away, we know Joe isn’t the nicest guy on the block.
The problem is, when his future self gets zapped into that cornfield, he’s neither hooded nor tied, and he kicks young Joe’s ass. This works on the screen, because Old-Joe is played by Bruce Willis.
Inevitably, hijinks ensue. Jeff Daniels wants Old-Joe dead, because that’s his job. He wants Young-Joe captured, because that’s the best way to get to Old-Joe. An early scene involving another “looper” on the run is, without question, one of the most horrifying things I’ve seen on screen in a while. And it sets up the consequences for both Joes in brutal fashion. (It also calls into question some of the time travel logic, which I’ll get into in the spoiler section of this review.)
Young-Joe wants his future self dead, so he can cash in and enjoy the next thirty years before his own death. Old-Joe is on a mission to change the future by finding and removing from the equation the person who will eventually run all these criminal organizations in the first place. And that person is, in 2044, a little kid who lives within jogging distance of Young-Joe’s cornfield murder spot. That single coincidence really bounced me out of the movie for a while. I kept waiting for some explanation of why the Rainmaker, as he is known in the future, happened to be from Joe’s hometown. But there was none. Simple coincidence. Annoying.
Emily Blunt plays the kid’s tough-on-the-outside, sweet-on-the-inside mom, Sara. Young-Joe befriends her, because he knows the best way to kill Old-Joe is to guard the kid. There’s a little bit of Terminator 2 style bonding between Young-Joe and Cid, the little mob-uber-boss in the making, but it’s kind of creepy because you know what the kid will eventually be capable of. I’ll give Rian Johnson (the writer/director) credit for never having any of the characters delve into “we should kill him for the good of humanity” nonsense. For the Joes and Sara, this is all very personal. But the thread is there for the viewer to ponder. That’s some clever writing.
The story takes some dark turns, and you find yourself, at times, rooting for Young-Joe, and at other times for Old-Joe. When I first saw the trailer, I assumed this was one of those stories where the second “version” of the character has grown and left behind his more nihilistic first “version”. (See… well, any film with amnesia as a central plot point.) But it’s definitely more complicated than that.
With a few question marks still hanging over the time travel rules, and some stuff that was a little too dark for me, it’s hard to call this a home run, but it’s still quite impressively done. So, say, a triple.
I have a couple of problems with the rules of the time travel in this movie. The biggest one involves Paul Dano’s Seth and his old version. After the bad guys grab Young-Seth, they start slicing pieces of of him. So one minute Old-Seth has ten fingers, then he looses one. Then another. Then he looses his nose. (And I almost loose my lunch. Frick, that’s nasty.) And he looses his feet, then his hands, then… well, just about everything that isn’t keeping him alive. I get it. This means that they can reduce Old-Seth’s ability to function without actually deleting him from history. There’s a throwaway line where someone says that just killing the young looper causes “trouble” in the future. But every time one of these amputations occurs, we see Old-Seth with fully healed wounds. So, the amputations cause a sort of ripple effect, where the timeline is continuously being altered. When Old-Seth looses his nose (yikes!) then a new history of the character has been created, in which he hasn’t had a nose for the past 30 years. That’s fine. Disgusting, but fine. What doesn’t work is when, for example, they remove his feet. That means this transitory version of Seth hasn’t had feet for 30 years. In which case, how did he run away from Young-Seth? How did he drive that car as far as he did? This is just a built-in paradox that makes no sense. Once they’ve reduced him to something less than a fully functioning man, then much of what has occurred in the last ten minutes of the film has, quite simply, been rewritten, to the point where he should have been caught by Young-Seth in the first place.
Now, given that, that actions that affect a young looper have immediate impact on the body of an old looper, regardless of the logic of the old looper being there in the first place, when Young-Joe kills himself in the climax of the movie, then Old-Joe shouldn’t have vanished, Back to the Future style. He should have been reduced to remains, either bones or at least ash (if someone cremated him). But the implication is that this action (as opposed to Seth’s unrequested cosmetic surgery) really does restack the deck of the future.
Another thing that is not satisfactorily explained is why killing the old looper is so crucial. Isn’t it enough that he’s in the past? Why must he be dead? What damage could he do?
The worst thing I imagine he could do is expose the fact that the mob will have time travel in the future. But no one even mentions that. If I were Bruce Willis (Old-Joe) I wouldn’t go on a child-killing spree. I’d fire up the nearest internet capable device, and spam the world with every detail I knew about the future. First, that makes me credible as a time traveler, and second, that would have just the same impact, wouldn’t it? If I can prove that I know the future, then won’t people be very interested in this little kid who I say will be the next Hitler? Won’t that effectively end his future-as-he-knows it?
Oh, and another coincidence that really bugged me. One of the possible future-Hitlers happens to be the son of Young-Joe’s prostitute girlfriend? Are you fricking kidding me? Yes, when we see that, we’re supremely freaked out that Old-Joe is going to kill someone who is actually close to him, but man, that plot point was a stretch.
Here’s another thing that kind of annoys me. In time travel stories, you have one of two structures. Either:
- History is immutable. Time travel is unable to change anything. (If you go into the past and do something, you already did it.)
- History is changeable. Time travel can change things, thus altering the present when you return.
Clearly, Looper is not in slot 1 because Young-Joe killed himself and Old-Seth lost his nose. (shudder)
But there’s a very clear indication that Old-Joe was the one who shot Sara, which was the triggering act that turned Cid into the Rainmaker. But if that’s the case, why was there a Rainmaker the first time around (which we see) when Young-Joe was able to kill Old-Joe without incident? Now, it’s possible that the first time around, Sara was killed by someone else… but that wouldn’t fit in with the “loop” idea that the narration pounds into us at the end of the film. Johnson wants to have it both ways. He wants to have the fun of altered history, but also the chilling effect of fate. I think he overreached a bit there.
They say that any film that makes you think is a good one. So, judging from the length of this review, I guess Looper is simply fantastic. I just wish it didn’t bug me so much.