Early on in Rian Johnson's time-travel thriller Looper, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sits at a diner and chats with his self from 30 years in the future (Bruce Willis). When the younger Joe asks the older one about the specifics of temporal displacement, the latter dismisses the question, telling his interlocutor what a waste of time it would be to sit there all day drawing "diagrams with straws."
Johnson would agree. His is a mind-fuck movie less interested in geeking out on the details of how exactly past and future intermingle than in investigating the moral implications of a charged situation grounded in character. No sooner does the film lay out the ground rules of its time-travel setup in almost didactically precise voiceovers than it turns its characters loose to make their own life-altering choices.
In short, for all its affectionate pastiche, Looper is a humanist movie, and is all the better for it. Taking place in the year 2042, it establishes a new type of underworld figure, the eponymous practitioner of dirty deeds, among whose number is Joe as played by Gordon-Levitt, heavily made up to resemble a younger Willis. Joe tells us, "Time travel has not yet been invented, but 30 years from now, it will have been"; as such, the gangsters who run the world in 2072 use the quickly outlawed practice to send people they wish to assassinate back in time to 2042, at which point loopers are poised to drop them the moment they appear and then dispose of the bodies.
But because time travel is illegal in the future, the loopers themselves must be eliminated, and so the criminals ultimately send these hired assassins back in time to be offed, oftentimes by their older selves. Such is the case when "future" Joe (Willis) appears in the crosshairs of his younger counterpart's gun, before the latter botches the hit and allows his older incarnation to run wild. Old Joe searches for the child that will become the future mob boss in order to kill him before he takes power and institutes his system of eliminating loopers, while his younger self hides out on a farm owned by a tough-talking single mother, Sara (Emily Blunt), who is raising a kid whose tantrums and telekinetic powers seem to indicate that he might grow up into that very kingpin. Meanwhile, the organization sends out its men to track down both versions of Joe.
Johnson first made his name with 2005's Brick, which transported the plotting, mood, and speech patterns of a classic noir to a contemporary high school. The director followed that with 2008's The Brothers Bloom, which wore its Wes Anderson — derived quirk on its perfectly manicured sleeve. With Looper, the borrowings are no less obvious, whether in the plotting (recent sci-fi mind-fuckers like Primer and Timecrimes vie with elements of noir and Bad Seed — style bad toddler behavior), the settings (the dystopian city of the future is drawn from countless cinematic models), or specific touches (the hired thugs in 2072 dress like spaghetti western bandits). But Looper isn't about its references. Instead, they're firmly woven into the fabric of the work. As Joe's boss (Jeff Daniels) explains to his style-conscious hireling, dismissing the latter's emphasis on superficial image-making, the movies he's copying in shaping his physical appearance are themselves copies of other movies.
Does this amount to self-critique? If so, it's a gentle one. But as Gordon-Levitt ages into Willis, he trades his youthful obsession with flash for a more satisfying relationship to the adult world. As the film evolves into an ethical quandary, it raises questions about what people will do to protect both their loved ones and their own happiness and wonders what value individual happiness merits when placed against the fate of the world.
If the ending seems a little too hedge-betting, Looper nonetheless satisfies wholly on the level of dramatic necessity. Thrilling in its deft juggling of complex narrative elements, utterly clear in its presentation, and unfolding with what feels like serious moral purpose, Looper still can't help but suggest that its larger ambitions are something of a put-on, a nice thematic polish to set off its interpersonal drama. But there's no shame in a film that favors the human scale over abstract philosophizing or meta-cinematic frippery. For Johnson, the inveterate pasticheur, it qualifies as a significant step forward.