Time travel and a cappella: not always bad ideas!
Time travel and a cappella: not always bad ideas!

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Writer-director Rian Johnson is counting on you to count on being confused by Looper’s decade-hopping premise. “This time-travel shit fries your brain like an egg,” one character says. Later, another dismisses the thought of getting into the ramifications of his confrontation with his future self, claiming that if they start talking about it, “we’ll be here all day, drawing diagrams.” But the Brick director also knows that the key to time-travel comprehension is simplicity, and the only map you’ll need is suggested by Looper’s title: Think of a circle, and you’ve pretty much got the story down.

On its slick surface, that story is enough to keep you invested. The year is 2044, and time travel hasn’t been invented yet, though it will be in 30 years, when it will be used only for gangster purposes. Some ne’er-do-wells in 2044, including rootless Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), are assassins who are told when and where to find their next target, who’s sent from the future bound and hooded with payment for the killer strapped to his back. (Outsourcing your murders to people in the past eliminates the evidence.)

The assassins’ only rule? Always kill the target. But eventually, that target will be the assassin’s aged self. When he’s killed, the loop is closed, and the younger self’s 30-year countdown to death begins. But now word in the underground has it that some new overlord called the Rainmaker is raising hell in 2074 and closing everyone’s loops. If you let your future self live, well, good luck to you, buddy.

This plot alone seems sufficient for a relatively paint-by-numbers sci-fi actioner. (Though around the hour mark you start to think, “OK, but is that all there is?”) So it’s quite a shocker when Looper slows down and morphs into a story about love—not romantic love, mind you, although a brief sex scene is unnecessarily crowbarred in here. No, it’s about the love of a mother. A good upbringing. Early life choices that will have huge implications later on. Changing one’s future if it’s not looking so hot. And, as telekinesis is a relatively common thing in 2044, even some Carrie-esque shit. It’s warm; it’s cool. And it inarguably makes Looper one of the finer surprises of the year.

Gordon-Levitt’s future self is played by Bruce Willis, and the younger actor was foolishly given prosthetics and makeup to look more like the Die Hard star. But you’ll spend more time grasping for a resemblance than simply accepting that these men are the same person. (In the first scene, shadows make Gordon-Levitt’s face look like a creepy motion-capture mask.) He occasionally squints his eyes a bit more than usual, and it’s all just a distraction. The actor more effectively captures Willis’ essence in—imagine!—a more actorly way, perfectly aping Willis’ scratchy voice in narration—and that’s all we’d really need to connect the dots, especially since another looper (Paul Dano in a small but compelling role) isn’t even afforded any kind of getup or thread whatsoever to link him to his older self. Gordon-Levitt’s prosthetics instantly became the biggest talking point of the film as soon as the news leaked, but what people should talk about now is that Looper has more depth, smarts, and heart than the usual sci-fi bluster, and Johnson hasn’t faked it at all.