“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.