It starts in green, green fields, accompanied by the gentle cadences of Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) speaking French. Then a man appears out of thin air, a thundering shot rings out and a narrative begins that will shake up all notions of time, choices, morality and making amends.
Kansas, 2044: Joe is a looper, a hitman who specialises in eliminating targets sent to him by the Mafia, from 30 years in the future. But things get complicated when his next target turns out to be his future self (Bruce Willis). And his bosses are none too pleased when he loses his nerve, and lets old Joe get away…
Confused yet? As crime boss Abe (Jeff Daniels basically playing a bearded and evil Will McAvoy) puts it: “Time travel shit fries your brain like an egg.” And like all time travel movies, Looper is filled with inherent contradictions and paradoxes. Credit must then go to director Rian Johnson, who skillfully negotiates the potential minefield while keeping the story on track, and (groan) closes the loop on the narrative well.
To reveal any more at this point would be to give too much away. Suffice to say that Looper is essentially a morality tale about the consequences of the choices you make. It’s the age old saying brought to life: if only I could go back and do things differently. Sooner or later, your past – or is it your future? – will catch up with you.
Looper pairs two generations of Hollywood actors – Willis the veteran, and JGL the rapidly rising star – who appear to have nothing in common at first glance. But the prosthetics (along with a bit of CGI) and his own performance convincingly transform JGL into a young Willis: handsome, cocky and living the high life, with booze, girls and drugs aplenty.
On Willis’ part, this is not his first time travel movie. In 12 Monkeys (1995), he returns to the past to change the course of history for the sake of a woman. In the case of Looper, there is something in the future waiting for him as well: his wife, played by Chinese actress Summer Qing (you can see more of my Life! interview with Summer Qing here).
And Willis is more than convincing as a weary old man filled with regret at a life wasted away, but still burning with the desire to make things right at all costs. As he looks upon an unconscious young Joe – a literal mirror image – he utters what many in the audience would love to say to our younger selves: “Stupid little shit.”
As if things weren’t complicated enough, the story is also told from the perspective of both young and old Joe, bringing a whole new meaning to the term 20/20 hindsight. When the duo finally talk face to face in an old-fashioned diner, the air positively crackles with energy. The quiet, tense encounter is reminiscent of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s showdown in Heat (1995), except that there is far more at stake here.
The story does drag somewhere in the middle, with a bit too much talking. But high praise must also go to Emily Blunt as Sara, the single mother of a little boy who will come to play a key role in the narrative. Her highly impressive Midwestern accent aside, she is a beguiling mix of fear, strength, vulnerability and sexuality.
The constant motif of time running out says it all in Joe’s old pocket watch, and the ticking clock in his apartment. What does it mean to be given a second chance? Can you really change things for the better? How do you convince your younger self not to make the choices he is determined to make?
“My memory’s cloudy, because they aren’t really memories,” says old Joe. And if the hush that descended upon the audience I was sitting with at the conclusion is any indication, there is no happy ending to be had for all concerned. In the end, you may not be able to change the past but you can certainly affect your future.
Have you watched Looper? What did you think of it?