Many science-fiction movies try to dazzle us with the high-tech sights of tomorrow. That´s not the case with writer-director Rian Johnson’s “Looper.” Although it’s set in the 2040s, the world it shows us isn´t radically different from 2012. Phones seem to have gotten smaller and motorcycles have been engineered to fly, but otherwise things haven’t changed much. Oh, wait there’s one more exception: Every so often an unlucky soul is sent back in time from the 2070s to be killed by a hit-man (a “looper,” as they are known), because dumping bodies in the late 21st century is apparently much more troublesome than it used to be.
Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose familiar face has been disturbingly modified by heavy makeup) is a looper, and a pretty successful one. Unfortunately, no matter how good they are at their jobs, loopers don’t have much in the way of job security. At some point, the bosses of the future may decide to “close the loop” by sending the looper’s future self to the 2040s, where his younger self will be forced to perform a kind of delayed-reaction suicide. After loopers have finished their task of, as Joe says, “taking out the future’s garbage,” they end up disposing of themselves as well. This idea gives “Looper” a genuinely eerie tone and an emotional charge you don´t expect.
Twentysomething Joe is assigned to do away with fiftysomething Joe, played by Bruce Willis, a chore that turns out to be far more complicated than it should be. Although the younger Joe has conditioned himself to turn off his emotions, the prospect of essentially engraving his own tombstone — knowing exactly how, where and when his life will end — is understandably disconcerting. Older Joe has a murderous mission of his own that´s even more troubling.
Johnson, who has made it big with the TV series “Breaking Bad,” has always been a risk-taking filmmaker. His last movie, “The Brothers Bloom,” was a giddy comedy with a touch of darkness around the edges; in “Looper,” Johnson has inverted that formula, giving us a generally ominous story with occasional bursts of wackiness. Most of them come from a deliciously deadpan Jeff Daniels as Joe’s boss, a tired businessman who approaches scheduling executions and managing his staff of hired killers as if he was getting ready for another tedious quarterly report.
What registers most strongly in “Looper,” however, is the chillingly high emotional stakes. Both Joes have the power to rewrite fate, and Johnson doesn´t take that lightly. When the younger Joe encounters Sarah (Emily Blunt), a tough-talking farmer with a severely bruised heart, “Looper” makes the leap from semi-gimmicky science fiction to truly wrenching drama. Sarah´s son Cid (Pierce Gagnon, in a stunner of a performance) turns out to be a pivotal player in the dangerous game in which the two Joes are immersed. Nathan Johnson´s propulsive score, with its 1980ish churning synthesizers and tingling keyboards, effectively amps up the suspense and draws out a bit of extra tenderness from the quieter, thoughtfully played scenes between Sarah and the younger Joe.
While “Looper” is not short on action and violence, Johnson doesn´t short-change the movie’s boldly drawn characters in favor of glitzy visual effects or futuristic razzle-dazzle. He’s infused the fantasy with authentic blood, sweat and tears, and the result is a movie that, like Joe, hits its targets.