Director/writer Rian Johnson (Brick
) doesn’t want to think too much about the technical details of time travel. Although his latest film, Looper
, wholly depends on the device for both plot and character, Johnson dismisses any investigation into the logic of his construct as “drawing diagrams with straws." Consequently, where there should arise questions of free will and determinism are only dull, long-winded explanations provided by voiceover narration and snarky, hipster dialog thinly disguised as irony designed to put on the kibosh. By cheekily railing against the “show, don’t tell” edict of storytelling, Johnson may have done the metaphorical equivalent of shooting himself in the foot with his movie’s most ubiquitous object—the clumsy but powerful blunderbuss.
In Kansas in 2042 there is no time travel, says Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who’s as earnest as any vintage noir hero and just as flawed, although this isn’t technically true. You see, in 2072 in Shanghai there’s time travel, but it’s illegal so obviously only available to a criminal syndicate, led by a mysterious crime boss called “The Rainmaker.” And all this unimaginative baddie can think to do with this amazing technology is to send his marks back in time 30 years to rural Kansas to be blown away by crude, sawed-off blunderbusses and disposed of by a member of an unofficial army of Loopers, overseen by Abe (Jeff Daniels), who was sent from the future to the past as some sort of punishment and made cynical from it. In the future, we’re told by Joe, a successful Looper, it’s harder to get rid of bodies.
Kansas in the time of the Loopers is colorless, lawless, and uneven. Where steampunk takes its inspiration from the Victorian era, Looper’s Kansas is the Great Depression mixed with ‘80s urban. Dirty-faced homeless children are in danger of getting run down, and petty thieves are shot on the spot. But on their generous salary of silver bars secured in the padded jackets of their victims, the Loopers make out like quasi-rockstars. They live fast and die young—or at least just 30 years in the future. The Rainmaker is starting to clean house by sending them their older selves to assassinate. It’s a poetically sadistic practice known as “closing the loop,” for which the Loopers are paid handsomely in gold so that they can live their remaining years in comfort or luxury, depending on how much they like sports cars.
When a Looper balks at killing himself—who wouldn’t?—his younger iteration is hunted down and punished, with severe consequences for the older version. This happens to Joe’s friend Seth (a woefully underused Paul Dano
). And it’s what could happen to Joe when Old Joe (Bruce Willis
) materializes in his cornfield, a few minutes late and wired to survive. Old Joe seems to be the only person with access to a different time who thinks through repercussions. Old Joe’s memories, and the plans he makes using them, are Johnson’s only concession to dealing with the issues of time travel. Yet, it seems to only scratch the surface, raising more questions than it answers.
For a dispassionate executioner, Joe makes a surprisingly reliable—if boring—narrator. He never breaks trust with his audience. Unfortunately, he never builds feeling with himself through his desires (there’s a vague notion about France) or with himself as Old Joe. The makeup that disfigures Gordon-Levitt’s boyish good looks but makes his profile eerily identical to Willis’, is the only real connection between the two. Despite bodies that share scars the way the Corsican Brothers shared pain, they are as distant as strangers and not even close to acting as the same psyche merely separated by distance and time.