“Time travel doesn’t exist, but 30 years in the future, it will,” says Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a hit man from the future, where such enforcers are called “loopers.” Joe is explaining his appearance on a Midwestern farm to an isolated mother (Emily Blunt) who knows more about loopers than he realizes. Joe is lurking on her farm to intervene in the arrival of someone dangerous from the present—his “present” self, now 60 years old and on a new mission (Bruce Willis). Future Joe and old Joe have already had a mind-boggling argument about their differing aspirations, which only confirmed Joe’s mission: to terminate his old self and fulfill his contract with the criminal organization that sent him into the past.
Writer-director Rian Johnson (auteur of the even more preposterous The Brothers Bloom, as well as the acclaimed generational crime drama, Brick) pulls off the patently unbelievable elements that occur in every time-travel story, glossing over such tropes as how that travel is actually accomplished to concentrate on the unforeseen conflicts that arise when past and present exist on the same plane of reality. The script shows some depth with old Joe’s reason for defying the time limit his younger self had agreed to, while the crime syndicate, headed by old Abe (Jeff Daniels) is determined to straighten out the loop before it causes disaster.
Looper is more violent than it needs to be—too much screen time is given to an inept looper (Paul Dano) with something to prove; he gets in the way of the more interesting plotline involving old Joe (if ever there was an action star capable of being credible while punching out his much-younger self, it’s Willis). And it’s old Joe who discovers that a future tyrant called the Rainmaker has a child-age self growing-up in a secret location—the protection of society not being uppermost on the minds of the younger generation.
The set design, of a near future where poverty is endemic, and futuristic flourishes, such as an advanced crotch rocket, are seamlessly incorporated and combine to give the film grounding in reality. Adding to its contemplative power are the creepy effects that occur when one person has two bodies in simultaneous existence. This allows the script to be more thought-provoking than if it had been filled with whiz-bang gizmos.