“This time travel shit fries your brain,” remarks Abe (Jeff Daniels), a mobster from the year 2072, to Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a contract killer in the year 2042 hired to dispose of enemies sent back from the future. It’s an apt summary of Looper as a whole, a chaotic, visually striking, often confusing two-hour extravaganza that’s perhaps too clever for its own good but nothing if not ambitious.
The suave Joe, hair slicked back and clad in a fitted leather jacket, is a “looper,” one of a gang of young assassins charged with disposing of bodies that technically do not yet exist. In defiance of a law against time travel, the mob employs the loopers to take out its targets, who arrive in the present out of thin air, bound and blindfolded.
The loopers ply their trade in a decaying, crime-ridden urban dystopia where a genetic mutation has given 10 per cent of the population telekinesis, an ability Joe’s colleague Seth (Paul Dano) relishes (“chicks dig guys with TK,” he remarks, moronically levitating a quarter above his palm).
The assassins make a good living for their services, the only caveat being that when their contract is up, they’re tasked with “closing the loop” (killing their future selves). And as Seth discovers when he allows his older self to escape, the mob punishes those who “let their loop run.” Unfortunately for Joe, he inadvertently does precisely that, hesitating momentarily when his double (Bruce Willis) arrives minus a blindfold, allowing him to make a break for it and pitting the mob against both of them.
Newly arrived in 2042, the elder Joe is intent on tracking down and killing a small boy destined to become the mob overlord called the Rainmaker, revealed in a flash-forward to have killed his wife. The younger Joe, meanwhile, seeks refuge on the Kansas farm of Sara (Emily Blunt), a feisty, foul-mouthed prairie girl who’s initially hostile towards the mysterious stranger but eventually takes him in.
Despite the film’s novel premise, it’s not totally devoid of clichés, something revealed in the farm scenes. Injured in a fight, Joe predictably only winces when Sara tends to his wounds after the conflict, which, despite the smouldering glances they exchange, is as physical as they get. Sara’s son Cid (Pierce Gagnon), in turn, can be cloyingly cute, as when he innocently asks Joe, “Do you kill people?”
At other times, however, the kid is credibly creepy, as when he explodes at Sara in a terrifying tantrum. It’s just one of several haunting visuals in the film, including the future Seth reacting in horror as the wounds inflicted on his younger self suddenly appear on his body, or a slow-motion shock wave blast that levels the farm field.
Despite these darker moments, however, the genially crusty Abe is a reliable source of laughs — “I’m from the future, you should go to China,” he tells Joe, who’s informed him he’s considering travelling to China or France — and a coffee shop meeting between the two Joes is surreally humorous.
Compelling though it may be for sci-fi fans, Looper may throw the casual observer for a bit of a, um, loop, but it’s still an impressive feat of originality, one certain to spawn many imitators.