Movies set in the future have a strange kind of history to live up to. While the freedom granted by creating a setting and time which doesn’t yet exist should be creatively liberating, since they are immediately compared to movies within their genre, there remains very much a lineage. Should a movie place its futuristic world in the not-terribly distant future, the setting tends to be recognizably modern with surreal and technologically advanced flourishes (Blade Runner, Minority Report, to name a few). If the future extends much farther into the not-yet-known, the shackles of familiarity are more or less abandoned completely as fantastical societies, creatures and cultures populate the worlds (The Fifth Element, Avatar). These are not the only two categories, obviously, though I would venture a pretty healthy amount of movies set ahead of present day align themselves relatively closely to one of these camps.
Looper, Rian Johnson’s latest feature, shares DNA with the former group while almost entirely eschewing the latter. In the movie’s present day (some decades from now), time-travel is an outlawed practice, though used by criminal syndicates as a way to irrevocably eliminate from existence people who are causing problems. In the early time frame, tough-guy adolescents and other seemingly at risk youths are solicited to become “Loopers”, hit men for the syndicates who, when instructed, appear at a specific time and place equipped with a blunderbuss. A near instant blast will greet the victim from the future, erasing them in a prior timeframe which removes their trouble causing activities in the future. The catch to this gig is that after enough years of service the Looper is eliminated. It’s a trade all of the boys accept, like any immediately rewarding but damned bargain, right off with the assurance the day of reckoning is far enough away it might never come. This allows the want-to-be tough guys to live fast, adorned with retro-chic attire acquired with their handsome commissions of silver bars (which accompany their targets through time) in a vibrant, hedonistic nightlife consistent with a nefarious career and increasingly finite lifespan.
The difficulty inherent in the Looper compact is the promise of extinction. Living hard is easy when the comeuppance is at a distance, but the sacrifice becomes unthinkable as past pleasures provide no comfort at the threshold. Bruce Willis, as an elder Looper who’s day of reckoning has arrived, resists and, in attempting to neutralize his assailants, loses the woman he loves. Eventually, by way of doing Bruce Willis things to his assassinators, he removes the hood typically affixed to victims (presumably to prevent any eye contact and potential reticence on the part of the shooter) and goes through the warp. Upon arrival his younger self (a very good and digitally aided Joseph Gordon-Levitt) recognizes the lowlife staring back at himself, granting Willis the brief window to disarm the situation and flee.
A Looper losing track of his charge is a major problem, seeing as blowing away a restrained person whose exact coordinates and travel arrangements are known to you is pretty difficult to mess up and is more or less their only responsibility. But these things happen from time to time, and in an excellent and unnerving sequence early on the audience is shown the consequences of such a Looper (the always punchable Paul Dano) screwing up. Due to the nature of time travel (or at least movie time travel, unless science is holding out on us) the advantage the younger versions have over their more wise and battle hardened twin is complete dependence. Decades of experience and knowledge are meaningless unless the foundation of their existence, their younger self, is thriving in the earlier time frame. As a result of this linear debt, methods as diverse as incision based messaging, torture and shared memories are deployed by Johnson in creative and refreshingly restrained fashion, lending the notion of something not approachable by modern technology a very tactile quality.
Utilizing this blue-collar upper hand, some noir-ish sleuthing and a (mostly) civil face to face, Gordon-Levitt comes to learn how in the future a criminal presence known as The Rainmaker is ending the contracts of Loopers and taking exacting, brutal control of their area. Willis reasons, and the earlier sequence with Dano corroborates the notion, that elimination of this Rainmaker at an early age would prevent such a dystopian development decades later.
As it would almost any movie, the introduction of a plot line where an old man attempts to murder a child creates a tonal shift. Surprisingly, though, the abrupt change in focus and location is not unwelcome. When a movie knows not only how to change gears, but why, the effect can be exhilarating (Goodfellas, Full Metal Jacket). Gordon-Levitt, now an unwillingly detoxing fugitive, shows up at the farm of Emily Blunt (also quite good). Perfectly acceptable prickliness on her part keeps Gordon-Levitt at arms length, though eventually her personal family history and Gordon-Levitt’s recent education on Willis’ sinister motives force an alliance.
The third act is incredibly low-fi considering the movie’s setting, though it helps reinforce a lot of what Looper, at least in my take, wishes to argue. Of the three principals, one is a genuine time traveler whose life is in ruin, the other is a bottom scraping criminal profiting off of the market created by time travel, and the third has the near Sisyphean task of making up for an up –to-that-point wasted life and years she can’t recover. What Looper is trying to argue, it seems, is the inefficacy of physics bending tricks and (forgive me) loopholes of those who don’t respect their preciousness, the movie contends that a poorly run race can’t be amended by returning to a false start. Almost like an inverse of the given that the best high stakes poker players are the ones who have no respect for money, what use is more and more time if you’ve demonstrated you’re just going to waste it anyway?