The sign of a great film is not just the story it tells. Its the way that story is told, with an attention to the tiniest detail that makes each second of screen time, the tiniest bit of action part of a whole that is holographic. Each element is a reflection of that whole that is also a microcosm of it. Such is the case with LOOPER, the third film from Rian Johnson and the one that confirms that the brilliance of his last two films, BRICK and THE BROTHERS BLOOM, was no fluke.
The premise is time travel, which in the world of 2044 when the film begins, has not yet been invented. That does not, however, prevent it from impacting that present. When it is invented, 30 years or so hence, it will immediately be outlawed as being to dangerous to use, which, in turn, means that the only people using it are the criminals. And then only sparingly. Apparently, even they are afraid of it. They only use it to send people back in time to be executed by the eponymous Loopers, who then dispose of the bodies, an activity that, apparently, cant be done in the future. Its a good living for Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a decent enough guy but one who is a product of the desperate economic situation that the future holds, the sort of times that call for desperate measures in order to survive. Perhaps this is why he is also a junkie. That and knowing that every Looper will eventually be sent back in time to executed by his younger self and when that happens, the Looper knows hes got 30 years left.
When the time comes for Joe, things dont go smoothly. His older self (Bruce Willis), has more than just his life at stake when it comes to running instead of quietly accepting his fate. Joes younger self knows that catching and killing him will save him from something worse that death over the next 30 years. And the farmhouse to which they are both drawn, where an unusual child (Pierce Gagnon) and his determined mother (Emily Blunt) reside, will determine much more than who lives and who dies.
The most scathingly brilliant and infuriating thing about LOOPER is that at some point in the proceedings, it becomes almost impossible to decide who amongst the bevy of determined people, all working against one another, is the one who is actually doing the right thing. Thats because, as Johnson has carefully constructed this delightfully intriguing universe, they all are, even though they are at implacable odds with the other. They can also, and this is the clever bit, all be equally wrong. As with the confluence of plot lines that brings Joe, old and young, into the lives of Sarah and her son. Fate or chance or synchronicity? In that same universe of choices, why should they all be true?
Johnson wisely includes a minimal, but critical, exposition about the nature of time travel and its effects on the traveler, the most concrete example being Abe (Jeff Daniels), the mob guy from the future who runs things in 2044. A mix of world-weary ennui from, literally, having see it all, and avuncular ruthlessness, hes an object lesson in cognitive dissonance. As for the other players, Gordon-Levitt, reedy and earnest, Willis, beefy and smirky, dont seem like a natural progression, but that is only one of the surprises to be found here. Gordon-Levitt with make-up that evokes Willis jaw line, contacts that match his eye color are only the start. The younger actor does not make the cheesy mistake of doing an impression of the older one, but, like the make-up, creates the impression of Willis, and by doing so, gets to the essence of both the character, young and old, and the older actor. It is easily one of the best performances of Willis career as that basically decent guy horrified by his choices but undeterred. Ditto Gordon-Levitt with his cool insouciance and troubled soul fighting for dominance.
The visual acuity of this film is stunning. Both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying, moving the story along as much as the action and dialogue in a symbiosis that becomes a cinematic apotheosis. Quick cuts, long pauses, and a use of sound that shows a profound understanding of how it affects the viewer on a subliminal level. From a shot of cream swirling in coffee that mirrors the chaos and order of a fractured reality, to a long take on a childs face that evokes empathy and horror at the same time. Its not just what is shown, but what is not shown, as well, leaving to the imagination that which can only be visualized there with the verisimilitude that it requires and deserves.
Its impossible to explain LOOPER further without giving away the breathtaking twists and turns that drive this dialectic on morality using time travel as its conceit. This is not just a chance to have one person talking to himself across a table in a diner when the older and younger versions meet. No, this is nothing less than a consideration of how at every moment, every person on the planet is making one of an infinite number of choices that will lead to an infinite number of possibilities. Its enough to make the head spin. And it does. Sublimely.