Paradoxes are the bread and butter of the time-travel scenario. You know the kind: Marty McFly accidentally got his mom hot for him instead of Crispin Glover and is now slowly vanishing from family photos. Effect cuts in front of cause, basically, whereupon all hell breaks loose. Trying to wrap your brain around that sort of logical contradiction can be enormous, disorienting fun, and there's plenty of mental stimulation to be found in Looper, the third film written and directed by Rian Johnson. (Full disclosure: Johnson's become a friend over the past few years, though I was a fan of his earlier films, Brick and The Brothers Bloom, before we met.) But Looper also tackles another, arguably even headier paradox — one that we all experience as we proceed on our relentlessly linear paths through time. Namely, how can one grow older and wiser, yet also learn nothing?
Frankly, wiser is the only possible direction for the film's protagonist, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), though it's uncertain at first whether he'll have the chance to get much older. In 2044, Joe works as a "looper," killing bound victims who've been sent back in time from an even more distant future (2074) in which time travel exists but has been outlawed, used only by the mob for untraceable corpse disposal. As Joe himself admits, it's not a job that attracts forward-thinking people, since odds are good that you'll eventually be sent your future self to murder, thereby "closing the loop."
Sure enough, one day Joe finds himself aiming his blunderbuss at his own middle-aged mug, in the form of Bruce Willis. Older Joe escapes, intent on finding and killing a young boy who'll grow up to become a terror of the underworld known as the Rainmaker. Meanwhile, Joe takes refuge on a farm where a flinty single mom (Emily Blunt) is raising a possible Rainmaker candidate (Pierce Gagnon), waiting for the chance to annihilate his destiny.
Achieving maximum rip-your-guts-out pathos from this imaginative plot would have required shooting half the film now, then waiting 30 years to shoot the other half with the same actor. Johnson instead opted for something almost as impractical, casting two actors who look nothing alike as Joe and Older Joe. A few prosthetic devices (chiefly nose and lips) applied to Gordon-Levitt help suspend disbelief, but it's really his performance that sells it — he pulls off an uncanny replication of Willis' latter-day mannerisms, suggesting not the wiseacre we knew from Moonlighting but a younger incarnation of who Willis is now. More crucially, though, Looper upends our expectations about the role a star like Bruce Willis should play in this sort of mainstream action movie. To reveal more would be criminal — suffice it to say that while Older Joe initially appears to have three decades of maturity on his counterpart, old ways of thinking ... uh, die hard.
In many ways — all of them good — Looper is a movie with a split personality. Like its "hero," its narrative is divided in two, with the hard-charging dystopian nightmare of the first half giving way to a more leisurely and idyllic (yet still tense) domestic drama. And while it's uncommonly crafty and bold by Hollywood standards, it's also uncommonly exciting and fun by brainy-art-film standards. Johnson has an intuitive understanding of cinematic rhythm combined with a showman's brash enthusiasm; his movies pop and weave and sizzle and amble, whatever's required. He's looking to wow you, but always in the service of characters and ideas, not just as sensation for its own sake. There's a shot of Joe falling from a fire escape, following him down, that looks show-offy ... until you register how the shot ends, where the movie then goes, and how that particular moment subsequently gets re-depicted from another character's point of view (in an equally stunning shot that's essentially the earlier shot's inverse). Looper is designed rather than assembled, and that alone makes it a welcome anomaly in today's multiplex. That it also tells a compelling story and has something uniquely thought-provoking to say makes it indispensable.
All of that said, and with apologies to Johnson, there's an emotional reticence to his films that I find immensely frustrating. Here, he sets up a potentially devastating conclusion and then all but ducks it, placing emphasis on Joe's relationship with the little boy (whose potential plight reminds him of his own horrific childhood) rather than on Joe's relationship with himself, via Older Joe. The moment of agonized self-recognition that would give Looper the power of genuine tragedy never arrives.
In recent interviews, Johnson has expressed a desire to follow Christopher Nolan's example, making smart, challenging movies that push the envelope in terms of size and ambition. I'd like to see him step far outside of his comfort zone, make a film that leaves him feeling vulnerable and exposed. I know he can bruise us if he tries.