There's this scene in Looper, about halfway through the film. Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing the same character, Joe the Looper, separated by thirty years of life experience, sit down in a diner. Gordon-Levitt starts to ask about Willis' memories, his understanding of their shared existence, particularly as it diverges further from the past Willis remembers when he was Gordon-Levitt. Angrily, Willis cuts off the questions, declaring he's not there to talk about that; if they try, then it's only a matter of time before they're trying to make diagrams out of straws on the tabletop.
It's an amusing line, and somewhat self-aware, but it's important because it represents the views of the creator. Rian Johnson, the writer-director and therefore basically the authority on the film, has made it quite clear that he had always intended to make a movie that involved time travel, but not a time travel movie. There would be no neat 1985/1985A drawings on chalkboards, no predestination paradoxes trying to rescue doomed loves, no men in terrifying rabbit costumes and none of whatever the heck Primer is. At the end of the day, Looper is about a guy, a functional junkie who's happy being a trigger man for the mob, whose life suddenly gets turned completely upside-down and who has to finally take a good, hard look at himself and justify his choices.
It just, y'know, happens to involve time travel, and telekinetic mutants, and a plot to kill a future criminal overlord while they're still a child.
I wonder if Willis insisted on getting the cooler gun...
Set in 2044, clearly in the midst of the collapse of western civilization, Looper is seriously bleak. Everyone seems to have weapons, and no hesitation about using them, with petty thieves getting gunned down in the street and not a single eyelash batted. Nobody, however, has much of anything else; food, clothes, housing, it all seems to be in decidedly short supply. For Joe, his best friend Seth and the other Loopers, however, things couldn't be better. Young men of limited horizons and simple appetites, the Loopers are paid well to execute prisoners sent back by the mob thirty years in the future, on the understanding that they too will eventually be sent back to keep the precise information regarding time travel a secret. When that happens, one 'closes their loop'. The payday is bigger, much bigger, the Looper is let out of their contract, and are set loose with the knowledge that they have about thirty years of guaranteed survival to enjoy before someone comes to send them back, bag on head and gold bars strapped to their backs.
Of course, if it were really that simple, there wouldn't be much movie. Instead of simply being sent back and dealt with quickly and cleanly, the older version of Joe manages to arrive unhooded and unrestrained, and with the help of just a moment of hesitation turns the tables on his younger self. This sets off the plot of the film; old Joe is looking for the identity of the Rainmaker, a brutal criminal crime lord in the future who's been closing all the loops, so he can stop them before they're too powerful. Young Joe is looking for old Joe, since if he fails to close his loop he'll have to answer to the present-day representative of the Rainmaker, Abe. And Abe and his lieutenants are looking for both of them, to kill old Joe or to use young Joe to find him, in a none-too-gentle fashion. This three-way chase sequence drives the overall plot, but it's young Joe's slowly-unfolding realizations about himself that propel the story.
Despite being slathered in makeup to try and look like a young Bruce Willis and called on to occasionally imitate the venerable action movie superstar, Gordon-Levitt turns in a truly impressive performance. Joe isn't stupid, just short-sighted; a child of the streets, at a time when the streets are as dangerous as they've ever been, he's never had any use for a long-term view. But as he confronts his older self, the choices he's made and the choices he's going to make, and interacts with a few other, key characters, including a slightly precocious child and a few of Abe's lieutenant's, he starts to develop a sense of himself and where he fits into the wider world. Gordon-Levitt plays young Joe with a fine mixture of swaggering street-tough, recovering junkie and frightened victim-to-be, trading time among these aspects but never letting any one of them overwhelm the others. It's a good, nuanced performance, in a role that could easily have just settled for someone doing a decent Bruce Willis voice and playing the cliched Gruff and Stoic Killer With a Good Heart. Joe's not a monster, but he's not a hero either, and Gordon-Levitt plays both sides of it quite nicely. He does it so well, in fact, that the ending seems comes at you straight out of left field, but after even just a second's reflection it's entirely obvious. The more I see of Gordon-Levitt, the more impressed I am.
For instance, I'm impressed by his ability to act wearing an entire second face.
Willis turns in a less nuanced performance. With thirty years of experience as a killer for the Chinese mob, a revenge plan in his head and no ties to anyone in 2044, he's mostly just a killing machine. Think Clint Eastwood, at the end of Unforgiven. But even then, he manages to put in a couple of nice, emotional beats. Old Joe had a wife in the future, the loss of whom he feels very deeply, and despite his singular focus on ending the threat of the Rainmaker before it begins, after he guns down his first lead he really sells the depth of his horror and disgust at murdering a child, in cold blood, for nothing.
Looper is a rock solid action movie, with some really good ideas and an actual heart, a rare thing these days. There are some beats that are obvious, such as young Joe picking one of the three target houses to lie in wait for his older self and, of course, forming a relationship with the child there. Some cliches, you just can't get away from. But overall the movie is sharp, willing to tread strange new ground both as an action movie with science-fiction elements and a science-fiction movie with action elements. It has a certain timelessness to it, simultaneously racing along and feeling like it could have already run for hours. The sets are well designed, futuristic but not so much that they seem fake, a space designed rather than lived in, and there some nice, subtle touches that make it clear that while this isn't our world, it could be, down the line.
I must offer a warning, though. Despite the writers' disdain for straw diagrams as expressed by Willis, it's hard not to try and make sense of the conflicting timelines. Go ahead, but realize that things are not going to line up neatly. This is the sort of time travel where effect can precede cause, even incite cause in the first place, and there are elements of the final timeline that are blatantly paradoxical. Since none of the characters in the film are scientists this isn't really addressed, becoming neither a problem nor a source of technobabble, which is ultimately the best way to handle it. It just is; the universe is, as the saying goes, not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine. But yes, the timelines of certain characters, and particularly the entanglement of Joe and the Rainmaker, do create something of a puzzle to chew over after you leave the theatre.
But, only well after you leave. Because when you first walk out of the theatre, I can pretty much guarantee you'll be focused on one of two things. Either you'll be thinking about Joe's character arc, or about what happened to poor, dumb Seth...