Looper wastes no time in thrusting the viewer into its dystopic, almost lawless future. The first section of the film could be described in and of itself its own, self-contained short film, presenting a future as divided as our own in the urban malaise and class divisions, with violence ready to spring from every corner. It is an evocation of so many attitudes and moods, but paramount among these is ennui. From the noir-inflected narration that somehow transcends exposition in its efficiency and bleak outlook to the empty thrills of clubbing and drugs, Johnson builds the viewer’s understanding of the loopers’ existence and mindset through the unrecognizable face of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, Joe. Gordon-Levitt’s performance is essentially that of an shallow machine; he has his various friends and flames, and he possesses very real (if hedonistic) dreams, but he is trapped in the empty lifestyle of the looper, killing a man a day remorselessly with the same amount of thought that he has towards learning a French word a day.
Then, after a stunning montage of partying, Joe’s life is turned upside down in an almost brutally programmatic series of events. However, the film never feels linear, as he continually teases out more and more aspects of the astonishingly rich world in an organic fashion that only explains the background, never what is happening in the moment. After Willis emerges, perhaps the best scene of the film occurs, condensing a lifetime of regret and redemption into a few minutes, before immersing the viewer back into the chase, scored to Nathan Johnson’s spare, rattling, and pulsating score.
Up until this point, Looper has been a relatively straightforward, if incredibly imaginative, science-fiction action film. But Johnson makes the ingenious move to pivot, shifting to focus on a radically different, more relationship-driven study of the consequences of time travel. Discounting some cross-cutting between the two Joes, the two parts hang together in large part due to Johnson’s incredible screenplay. As mentioned before, he manages to pull off what could be empty exposition with noirish flourish, but he also combines it with a certain kind of laconic, almost country-fried dialect, which fits the Kansan setting and manifests itself even more out in the countryside. Blunt’s strong performance, by turns combative and general, is also key to selling the parent-child dynamic that arises even as things get stranger and more menacing.
Looper‘s final scene is perhaps the most intriguing of all. It comes after what would be the climax of standard action-fare, in an almost ridiculously one-sided gunfight. However, it chooses to eschew that idea for a surprisingly moving decision that speaks to the power of the past and the hope for a future while solving a particularly knotty paradox, all in one fell swoop. Looper is ultimately hopeful without sacrificing its own pessimistic outlook, and is in general structured to perfection; if it feels reserved at times, this issue is overcome by its sheer craftsmanship and innate understanding of what truly makes science-fiction a fascinating and innovative genre.