Looper is an audacious movie.
It’s not only a futuristic noir thriller, replete with seedy dissolute gang bosses, a decadent criminal culture, and junkie hit men “living the good life” but it is also jammed to the philosophical gills with all manner of deep, probing existential questions about fate, predestination, and whether a life can be undone and refashioned.
And for the most part it makes these unlikeliest of bedfellows the work as narrative companions.
The latest movie from talented director and writer, Rian Johnson, who was also responsible for the moody but thoughtful angst of Brick, begins simply but bloodily with shot after shot of Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a hitman in 2044, dispatching target after target that land on a sheet of wind-rustled plastic sheeting in the middle of a Kansas corn field.
The hooded and trussed up recipients of his methodical dispatching have been sent from 3o years into the future where criminal gangs have harnessed the outlawed technology of time travel to cleverly remove all traces of the bodies of their victims.
The job of Joe and others like him, who are paid with silver ingots taped to the back of their hits, is to kill quickly and efficiently, and dispose of the bodies. For the hitmen of 2044 America , which seems to have more than its fair share of vagrants, a clear sign of economic decline, it is just a job. So routine in fact that Joe listens to French on his wireless headphones so he can impress a waitress at a diner nearby that he frequents once he has completed his latest assignment.
Routine that is until one day, in common with many of his fellow hit men, who spend their down time high on drugs at their employer’s mega-strip club, he is confronted with his future self in a process known as “closing the loop”.
It should be as simple a kill as any of his jobs. Kill his future self, dispose of the body, grab the gold bars strapped on the back in place of the usual silver, and enjoy the next 30 years of life left to him.
But Joe is a cut above the rest, and has already figured out a way in the future to take his younger self by surprise, go on the run and hopefully change the future so he can continue to live a blissful life with his future Chinese wife who saves him from his junkie existence.
Of course, nothing quite goes to plan, for either of the Joes. While the older Joe (Bruce Willis, channeling all the Die Hard bravado and then some, he can manage) seeks to convince his younger self, over a scene in the remote cornfield diner which is almost his second home, that they must work together to avert a future controlled by a ruthless gang lord with immense power, younger Joe is focused only on maintaining his present privileged position.
A position which grows ever more imperilled with each second that older Joe stays alive.
It’s this clash of objectives that fuels the movie but not in the way you would expect.
While older Joe, angry at his younger self for not listening to his sage advice – it leads to one of the few funny scenes in an otherwise emotionally austere movie where younger Joe declares his intention to retire to France at which point older Joe pointedly says “I’m from the future. Go to China” – sets off on a quest to rid the world of the future gangster overlord who will destroy the life he cherishes with his wife, younger Joe sets out, initially at least, to thwart older Joe’s mission.
That is until he ends up at the farm of Sara (Emily Blunt), and her estranged young son, Cid, which is one of three places that the young gang lord known as the Rainmaker could be growing up, and begins to slowly realise that life is not as clearcut and simple as he thought.
His growing closeness to Sara and her son, which again doesn’t follow quite the trajectory it would in other more predictable movies, leads to a series of fateful decisions as younger Joe begins to understand that the life has now is not the best life he could be living, and even if it was, is no longer his for the taking.
The fateful intersection of older Joe and younger Joe quests comes to a violent head at the farm when older Joe, having seen off an armada of gangsters after his capture by Kid Blue (Noah Segan), arrives at the farm and confronts younger Joe who, deeply troubled by giving up his best friend and fellow hitman Seth (Paul Dano) to the mob after his own “closing the loop” goes bad, belatedly decide that someone needs to stop the cycle of violence.
And in a split second in a cornfield, where Cid, who possesses tele kinetic powers far above the norm – in an aside earlier in the movie, young Joe comments that 10% of the population has developed minor telekinetic powers and are known as TKs; its these small pieces of vital information that make this movie one that must be watched intently – has whipped up a furious storm of sugar cane field debris, elevating his mother and older Joe in the process, younger Joe acts.
But once again not as you’d expect but for exactly the reasons you think he would after his journey of self-discovery, such as it is, on the farm. For young Joe has realised that fate can be altered, that not all the choices we make are set in stone, and even if they are, can be broken apart and altered, and that the sins of the father do not necessarily have to be visited on the next generation.
Weighty issues all but the script, which does suffer it must be said from an emotional distance that does harm the movie’s progression at certain points, deftly weaves them into the narrative, so successfully in fact that the extreme final act by younger Joe make perfect sense, shocking as it is.
Looper works as well as it does, balancing violent action and deep existential questions of life and our role in shaping it, thanks to an intelligent script, pinpoint accurate direction with not a scene wasted, bravura performances by Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (whose prosthetics and attention to Willis’s vocal characteristics and physical mannerisms is pitch perfect), and an emotionally resonant Emily Blunt as the mother who will do whatever it takes to take care of her son.
It is lofty ambition realised, and will have you thinking and pondering at length long after you leave the theatre.