Looper will get a lot of credit for being original. In a cinematic universe rife with remakes, reboots, and retreads, indeed it is, to a degree. The premise, in which mobsters in the future send garbage (enemies, witnesses, and patsies) back in time to be disposed of by present day assassins, is pretty unique as far as I’m concerned. The film even casts Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis as younger and older versions of the same character—an assassin (or Looper) named Joe. And here’s the kicker: Levitt’s latest assignment is to kill Willis, his future self, once the latter comes crashing into his time zone. Now there’s a movie idea. Maybe one day, in the future, a single good idea will be enough to produce a great movie (perhaps there’ll even be an App for it). Alas, here in the present, Looper can’t sustain its creativity throughout, growing disappointingly derivative as it stutters toward its confused and dissatisfying conclusion.
The movie begins auspiciously enough, introducing a sci-fi universe that’s at the very least one for people with working cerebrums. It’s in the second half that the movie trips on its own convolution. The year is 2044, time travel won’t be invented for another thirty years, and gangsters three decades on are using it for body disposal. Loopers like Joe wait in fields to meet undesirables as soon as they appear bound and masked and ready for a shotgun blast to the chest. Joe has worked for Abe (Jeff Daniels), his futuristic Fagin employer, since he was an orphan. The world they inhabit is an anarchic, rundown dystopia full of wandering vagrants and well-dressed thugs. It’s a place of honest beggars and crooked millionaires. Writer/director Rian Johnson clearly has intentions to reflect our dichotomous economic times with his inequitable milieu, a demimonde of physical and moral decay, an extension of our environmental and cultural trepidations.
Joe loves the perks of his job (the clothes, cars, and drugs) but is painfully aware of the vocation’s strange retirement policy: A Looper can be fired—or his “loop closed”—which means that the next body he extinguishes will be his own, thirty years older, thereby accepting his predestined demise on the way to enjoying thirty years of peaceful retirement. Early on, we see what happens when a Looper fails to follow this policy. In fact, that scene, in which a middle-aged fugitive falls apart before our eyes as his younger self is mutilated off-screen, is by far the most inventive and well-staged in the entire runtime. It is, with the alien abortion in Prometheus, another recent example of a great scene in an otherwise mediocre movie. Eventually, Joe’s number comes up, fomented by an unusual surge in closed loops attributed to a mysterious future honcho named The Rainmaker. Joe’s older self appears in the form of Bruce Willis, and naturally, the old man won’t go down without a fight.
For a while, the movie is quite compelling. There’s a particularly fruitful diner rendezvous between the two Joes that finds great profundity in pointing out their inherent similarities (they both order steak and eggs instinctively) and their worldly differences (older Joe has a weary sadness that younger Joe can’t yet comprehend). From there, Looper struggles to develop itself into anything dramatically fluent or intensified. For reference, imagine what Total Recall would have been like if Paul Verhoeven hadn’t managed to transcend the idea of virtual-reality designer vacations. It would just be an embryonic spark without a flame—a launching pad but no shuttle. There’d be no Johnny Cab and no three-breasted hooker. It’s not that Rian Johnson doesn’t have a creative mind. It’s that he doesn’t know how to expand on his premise without abandoning it completely. What begins in a fascinating metropolis where civilization withers eventually winds up on a secluded farm, a place of intimacy but lethargy, where Levitt’s young Joe shacks up with a pretty single mother, at which point the movie comes to a soporific halt.
As a director who once set a film noir in a suburban American high school, Johnson has a talent for transmuting genre. It’s not preternatural that his movie would begin growling hardboiled narration from sordid streets and end up on a lonely homestead: From Blade Runner to Shane. But Looper feels like an uneasy mélange of, not only two genres, two movies. As if directed half by Joseph H. Lewis and half by Budd Boetticher—with influences as varied as Phillip K. Dick, James Ellroy, and Charles Portis—Looper’s tapestry is often crudely sewn and, by the end, nearly bisected. In the middle of Joe’s complex battle with(in) himself, just as the movie starts to rev its engines, it gets sidetracked onto that Kentucky farm, and into a murky subplot involving mutants and a shotgun-toting Midwest rube played by Emily Blunt. The audience is left stranded in a cavernous labyrinth of undeveloped ideas reverberating with echoes from better movies: Notably The Terminator, but also Tarkovsky’s Stalker.