I was pretty skeptical going in to this movie, since received a fair amount of laudatory pre-release hoopla, while looking like nothing more than an extended chase film. And many of the reviews upon release were tepid, saying it just rearranges sci-if cliches, a la The Fifth Element. But this turns out to be one of those films that takes a hard story turn not hinted at in the trailers, and winds up being something entirely different than what it is sold as. In this case, it works--as opposed to another film with a halfway-point switcheroo, Malice--in that it is very careful about setting up for all the changes to come and answering any viewer questions before they're asked.
So it's 2044 in Iowa. Time travel will be invented 30 years in the future, but against the law, meaning only criminals use it, to seamlessly dispose of bodies. They send them back in time, and someone called a looper is there to kill them immediately and get rid of the body. Eventually the looper will kill his future self, and this is called "closing the loop." In the meantime, our main looper, Joe, spends his free time doing an unnamed drug taken through eye drops. We also establish that some people have developed mild telekinesis, used mainly to float quarters above their hands, used mainly to pick up girls. Why a woman would respond sexually to that is one of the few unanswered questions. In here we have a montage of Joe killing, doing drugs, partying, killing, doing drugs, etc., showing us that he's not exactly a man with a plan. In here we also have an intriguing vision of a future city rife with homelessness, violence and crime, where you pull a gun on anyone who approaches and warn them to stay back. I was interested to see more of that, but the movie has more on its mind.
Now, since we know from the trailers that Joe's future self comes back, the movie has a problem. Because how can it create any stakes or suspense, if we know that Joe will still be alive and well in 30 years? It smartly handles this by showing us the situation of Joe's fellow looper Seth, who lets his own future self escape. Once this happens, the mob organization who runs the whole thing comes after both of you, hard, also establishing that it's going to be big-ass trouble for Joe when the same thing happens to him. Present Seth is caught, and tortured, which we see by watching first fingers, then (in an extremely effective shot) legs melt away from the future Seth, which answers the question: One's present self can indeed die, and it will alter the future and negate the existence of one's future self. The movie won big points with me by seeing this narrative conundrum up front and responding to it.
So Joe's future self comes back, in the form of Bruce Willis, and escapes. Now Joe is on the run. The trailers have set this movie up to be one long chase of Joe's present self for his future self, and for a while it proceeds on this path. In here, another surprising detour: we have a synopsis of Joe's life for the next thirty years, until the time he went into the time machine. He finally quits, moves to China, his money runs out, and eventually he's back to doing drugs and contract killing. He meets a Chinese woman who reforms him and "saves his life." Back in the present, the two Joes meet and have a talk in a diner. Future Joe says that in the future is a fellow called the Rainmaker who is an ultra-badass, and completely owns the city and is systematically killing all the loopers. Old Joe gives young Joe some numbers, which he says are crucial, and soon after their talk is interrupted and they go their separate ways.
Young Joe realizes the numbers are locations and is led to a farm overseen by Emily Blunt as Sara, who fiercely guards it against intruders to protect her young son, Cid. This is the beginning of the severe, but gradual, turn this film takes, and I'm going to try to talk about the effects without giving away the plot. Things slow way down here, to the point where you, like me, might start to say "Uh... this is getting a little boring?" In fact, the film is slowing down because it is shifting toward an entirely different track, one gratefully not hinted at in the trailers. We're taking time to set up new characters and relationships.
By the way, pay special attention to the conversation Joe has with Cid while they're in the hideout, where he describes his motherless past that resulted in his present life: it is crucial to understanding the ending.
So things are slow for a while, then they suddenly flourish and you realize what the film is about is remarkably different than what was expected. A neat trick, and I can't help but admire the skill with which it was pulled off. So let's go back to Malice. That film tried an ambitious mid-film switch from one genre into another. And I think it pretty much failed. For one, the trailer got you to expect one kind of movie, and when it turned into the other, it wasn't what you had paid money to see. Looper's second half isn't so far from the first that you feel cheated, the emphasis is just in a different place. It wasn't clear in Malice when the first plot was finished, so in the second half, you were so confused you were unable to get into the groove of the second plot. In Looper, everything in the second half is carefully set up in the first, only you're taking it in without knowing it will matter. It all locks together into place looking back from the ending, when one can admire how crucial elements were dropped into place along the way. One also has to admire how, in our post-Sixth Sense era where many movies now have trite reversals, and so many films' secrets are given away in their trailers, this movie was able to make it through while holding something genuinely surprising in store for your viewing.
So a lot of the preceding praise has to go to the writing, and impressive overall narrative conception of the whole thing, but it also looks great and moves along with snap and panache. I was reminded of Drive in certain violent scenes in the second half, where the colors are vivid and the camera movements are careful, and you know that you can relax, you're in the hands of someone who knows what they're doing. The wit and tempo here are a bit increased from Drive's solemnity, however, and it remains propulsive and fun.
If one had the inclination to, I suspect one could sit down and puzzle out all the statements this film is making about determinism and free will and all those other $10 college essay topics. But let's face it--this ain't the Sistine Chapel ceiling. However, I think there's a lot there, and I suspect it holds up to scrutiny. One case: we get three narratives about how a person turned out, one past, one future, and one projected. Each of them add up to an idea that despite the choices we make, we often drift toward the same, usually bad, outcome. The final act of the film is a conscious choice to change that pattern, and this opens up new possibilities for turning what we knew would be an awful future into one with potential for greatness. Which is quite optimistic and a bit moving. It's a bit like the final change of routine that similarly alters a predestined future in Femme Fatale. I'm sure there's other depths to be plumbed here, but I leave them to the kind who look for answers to life's deeper meanings by re-watching Inception.
The summary: Good, smart, well-written, carefully-directed film that manages to pull off a very difficult narrative surprise, does it with panache, is entertaining, rewards rather than insults your intelligence, but still has all the gunfights Inception fans require as a prerequisite to serious thought.