Paradoxes are the bread and butter of the time-travel scenario. You know the kind: Marty McFly accidentally gets his mom hot for him instead of Crispin Glover and starts slowly vanishing from a family photo. And when effect cuts in front of cause, trying to wrap your brain around the resulting logical contradictions can be enormous, disorienting fun.
Looper, the third film written and directed by Rian Johnson, delivers plenty of that mental stimulation. (Full disclosure: Johnson has become a friend of mine over the past few years, though I was a fan of his earlier films, Brick and The Brothers Bloom, before we me.) But it also tackles another, arguably headier paradox, one that we all wonder about sometimes as we proceed on our relentlessly linear paths through time: How can one grow older and wiser, yet also learn nothing?
Wiser is the only possible direction for the film's protagonist, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), though it's uncertain at first whether he'll have the chance to get much older. In 2044, Joe works as a "looper," killing people who have been bound and sent back in time from an even more distant future (2074), one in which time travel exists but has been outlawed. In this future, the mob uses time travel for untraceable corpse disposal. As Joe admits, it's not a job that attracts forward-thinking people. Even he knows that, sooner or later, he may be sent his future self to murder, thereby "closing the loop."
Sure enough, one day Joe finds himself aiming his blunderbuss at his own middle-aged mug, in the form of Bruce Willis. Older Joe escapes, intent on finding and killing the young boy who'll grow up to become the underworld terror known as the Rainmaker. Younger Joe takes refuge on a farm, where a flinty single mom (Emily Blunt) is raising a possible Rainmaker candidate (Pierce Gagnon). He must now wait for the opportunity to wipe out his destiny.
Achieving maximum pathos from this imaginative plot would have required shooting half the film now, then waiting 30 years to shoot the other half with the same actor. Johnson instead has opted for something only slightly less practical: casting two actors who look nothing alike to play Joe at different ages. Light prosthetics (chiefly nose and lips) applied to Gordon-Levitt help suspend disbelief, but it's really the younger actor's performance that sells Looper. He pulls off an uncanny replication of Willis' latter-day mannerisms, suggesting not the wiseacre of Moonlighting (which peaked when Willis was about Gordon-Levitt's age) but a younger incarnation of the Willis we know today.
More crucially, though, Looper upends our expectations about the role a star like Willis should play in a mainstream action movie. To reveal more would be criminal. Let's just say that, while Willis' Joe initially appears to have three decades of maturity on his counterpart, old ways of thinking ...uh, die hard.
In many ways — all of them good — Looper is a movie with a split personality. Like its "hero," its narrative is divided in two, with the hard-charging dystopian nightmare of its first half giving way to a more leisurely and idyllic (yet still tense) domestic drama. And while it's uncommonly crafty and bold by Hollywood standards, it's also uncommonly exciting and fun by brainy art-film standards. Johnson has an intuitive understanding of cinematic rhythm combined with a showman's brash enthusiasm. His movies pop and weave and sizzle and amble, as the moment requires. He's looking to wow you, but always in the service of characters and ideas, not just as sensation for its own sake. There's a shot of Joe falling from a fire escape, following him down, that looks show-offy, until you register how the shot ends, where the movie then goes, and how that particular moment is depicted again from another character's point of view (in an equally stunning inverse of the earlier shot). Looper is designed rather than assembled, and that alone makes it a welcome anomaly in today's multiplex. That it also tells a memorable story and has something thought-provoking to say makes it indispensable.
All of that said, and with apologies to Johnson, there's an emotional reticence to his films that I find immensely frustrating. Here, he sets up a potentially devastating conclusion and then all but ducks it. In recent interviews, Johnson has expressed a desire to follow Christopher Nolan's example, making smart, challenging movies that are also big and ambitious. I'd like to see him do Nolan one better and make a film that leaves him feeling vulnerable and exposed. I know he can bruise us if he tries.