Looper is the sort of movie that doesn't come along that often. Very few action movies bother to tell a real story. Very few indie "auteur" movies have a really compelling plot. And you won't see too many high-concept science fiction films that turn their bells and whistles into a real premise.
You're going to want to see Looper right away, before all your friends start tweeting spoilers. And then plan on watching some cartoons afterwards, to get some of the images out of your head before you try to sleep. Minor spoilers ahead... (And in case you're new to this, "minor spoilers" means I assume you've seen the trailers. No big plot twists revealed here.)
At least, Looper gave me weird dreams, something few movies have done lately. There are a few sequences in this film that might keep coming back and freaking you out again, although compared to a lot of horror movies or blood-drenched action movies, this film isn't that strong a brew. It just uses its violence with extreme sadism and more than a little weirdness. In some ways, Looper reminded me of Drive — all of the violence in this film is done with extreme intent, and is taken seriously.
Looper has a neat enough premise that the movie probably could have coasted on it. It's the fairly dystopian future of 2044, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a "looper" who kills people who arrive from the future. In 2072, time travel has been invented but is illegal — and gangsters use their time machine to dispose of inconvenient people. They send the victims back in time to be murdered by Joe, and technically no crime has been committed. Everything's dandy — until Joe meets his future self (Bruce Willis.)
So the whole film is one big paradox, as two versions of the same character run around Kansas City, butting heads and making an ever-bigger mess. Usually, the notion of someone meeting his older/younger self would naturally turn into a character study — but this being a noir movie, the meeting of the two Joes is much more of a confrontation, in which both versions of Joe represent something corrupt or failed to the other.
It's hard to do noir without a certain level of irony these days — and there was a decent helping of irony in director Rian Johnson's first film, the high-school noir film Brick. This time around, though, Johnson manages to create a version of noir that feels completely deadpan and devoid of quotation marks — there's plenty of humor, but not much irony at all.
In fact, Johnson indirectly shows us in this film how to use genre. Not as a track for the characters to roll along until they reach a destination we all see coming*, but as a source of pressure that makes the characters' lives difficult. To the extent that this is a "gangster movie" or a "time-travel movie," those are the elements of the story that are making both Joes miserable, and threatening them with a bad end.
Noir, of course, is very much of the past, even though we live in a time where many of its defining elements are more pertinent than ever. And, too, many movies and TV shows that depict a "dystopian future" self-consciously make it look like the past — the way the Hunger Games movie channels 1930s Dustbowl photos in showing us District 12.
Looper follows this trend, showing us a dystopian 2044 Kansas City that has a lot of elements of a 1940s gangster movie as well as hints of the Great Depression (but again without notable irony.) This sort of drives home quickly quite how messed up things are in this relatively near-future. And the fact that it's a future that looks like the past in some ways actually works with the story, because 2044 is the past to a few major characters in the film. This tension between past and future is at the core of the film, so the fact that it's a future that feels historical is weirdly appropriate.
And the film uses its different environments to create a feeling of movement, and at times of claustrophobia. The city scenes feel paranoia-inducingly tight and dirty, while the field where Joe executes his victims has the perfect desolate, abandoned look. Later on, when we go out to a more rural setting and meet a young mother played by Emily Blunt, the film suddenly opens up.
There are a lot of clichés around time travel, most of them having to do with "fixing" the past or avoiding a terrible future. To the extent that time is a prison, most time-travel stories are about escape, one way or another. Looper musters a lot of its grim power to make time travel, and knowledge of the future, feel like just another form of imprisonment, another twist of the straitjacket.
Does the time travel make sense? Well, not entirely. There are a few bits here and there where my B.S.-meter started to twitch considerably. Also, some pretty hoary time travel clichés are trotted out — but at least the film commits to them and takes them seriously as plot devices. Which is pretty much the only way to go with plot devices that were old before the director was born.
Looper is probably going to get a lot of comparisons to Moon — a tense, smart movie about a man meeting himself in an oppressive situation — but it actually reminds me a bit more of Drive. It has the same feeling of a guy who's been treading water in a sewer finally losing his footing, and the same feeling of being an action movie where the violence and menace get a brand new effectiveness from some clever direction and strong acting. But really, either comparison is apt, and represents much-deserved praise.
Bottom line — in a few days, everybody you know is going to be talking about this movie. You ought to see it before that happens, or your future self will go back in time and smack your past self upside the head.
* This really is how most stories use genre. As a track, like for Hot Wheels. It's sad.