“If we start talking about it we’ll be here all day, making diagrams with straws,” Joe (Bruce Willis) tells Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), his younger self, over diner coffee in Rian Johnson’s elegant but ultimately incomplete futuristic thriller Looper. To its credit, Looper spends more time on the uses and moral implications of its time travel technology, which has been outlawed, and is used primarily by a criminal syndicate that sends its victims back in time to be assassinated by young men who must eventually kill their future selves as part of the bargain, than in attempting to make it comprehensible. But the movie ends up split between two equally rich concepts, failing to adequately connect them, and doing full justice to neither.
The movie begins with Joe, a young looper, explaining his work in 2040s Kansas, where he kills people at the edge of a sugar cane field, burns their bodies in an industrial facility, and stops at a diner where he practices French with his favorite waitress, Beatrix. He spends more time on the mechanics and mindset of his job, a profession populated mostly by young men who aren’t very good at thinking ahead, but very much enjoy the lucrative rewards of their work, paid in bars of silver strapped to the bodies of their victims, which allow them to frequent flashy clubs and stay addicted to stimulant eye drops that turn the world pleasantly upside down. Joe’s boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels, vastly more enjoyable here than he is pontificating in The Newsroom), grumbles at Joe that “The movies that you’re dressing like are just copying other movies. Fucking 21st century effect. Do something new,” and suggests that he abandon his plans to visit Paris because “You should go to China…I’m from the future. You should go to China.”
As an aside, Joe mentions a mutation that’s given about ten percent of the population mild powers of telekenisis, a revelation that once lead people to believe that superheroes were about to emerge, but “Now it’s just a bunch of assholes who think they’re going to blow your mind by floating quarters. It’s like this whole town: big heads, small potatoes.” What’s initially an aside, a bit of local color in a glimmering megacity that Johnson builds with the same hardboiled spine and detailed flesh that he brought to Brick, his first feature, also a collaboration with Gordon-Levitt, becomes the point on which the movie bifurcates.
Joe’s routine is interrupted when his friend Seth (Paul Dano) shows up at his apartment having failed to kill his future self, or close his loop. He’s terrified, and with good cause: Abe’s private squad of hitman show up at Joe’s apartment to do the job he couldn’t. Joe eventually gives Seth up in order to keep his secret stash of silver, a not particularly subtle allusion. But before Seth dies, he passes along a warning from his future self to Joe: “He told me there’s a new holy terror bossman in the future and he’s closing all the loops.” It proves prescient. Joe’s loop shows up, but unlike Seth’s, who slips because of Seth’s negligence, he’s prepared, which makes since, because Future Joe is prepared, determined to escape and kill the bossman, known as the Rainmaker, so he can avoid being spent back and live out his life with his wife in China.
One of the movie’s great pleasures is watching Willis and Gordon-Levitt, who could grow up to be the kind of melancholic tough that Willis has become so effectively in recent years, work opposite each other and explore the questions of how a suave, thoughtless young man becomes a worthwhile human. “You’re stupid and self-absorbed and she cleans you up,” Future Joe tells present Joe, making an exhausting movie cliche seem rich with emotion. “You take her love, like a sponge.” But the movie separates them almost immediately, and not necessarily to its benefit. Future Joe has his quest to complete, and Present Joe just wants to kill him, but decides the best way to do so is to camp out on a farm occupied by Sarah (Emily Blunt), a pretty refugee from city life, and her small son Cid (a very good Pierce Gagnon), and wait for him to show up.
There’s fine acting in the half of the movie that takes place on the farm, but it’s dramatically less original than the city that grew out of Johnson’s imagination. Sarah has flashes of edge, but she’s also prone to falling over in moments of tension, and ends up reduced to the kind of female thriller supporting character whose motivations shift as the movie needs her to be prickly towards Joe, a sex scene, or a vision of maternal love as world-changing force. Cid has a bit more spike to him, bonding with Joe over an alarm system the bright little boy builds for the house and a streak of ten-year-old naughtiness. But as his story progresses, Cid’s personality bends to the power of various cliches as well, and a number of shots that should convey intense emotional weight end up seeming laughable instead.
I’d love to see Johnson make a movie about the emergence of superheroes, or about meeting yourself from the future, or even a longer version of Looper that connected the movie’s disparate halves to more powerful effect. And I’d really like to see him make a movie his play with archetypes serves his female characters as richly as they’ve served his leading men. If Looper had closed the circuit, it could have been one of the most electrifying genre movies I’ve seen this year. But as it stands, the circle isn’t quite complete.