Joe has a simple, steady job. He waits in a deserted cornfield in Kansas in 2044, and people from the year 2074 send victims to him via a time machine. They land, hooded and kneeling, on a blanket. Joe kills them with a blunderbuss, flips them over, removes payment strapped to their backs in the form of silver bars, then goes into the city to find drugs and a hooker.
One day, a man arrives without a blindfold, facing Joe. An exchange of eyes makes both realize they are the same person: Young Joe has been ordered to kill Old Joe, who escapes in the split-second of indecision that postpones his execution.
Thus begins a chase that will run through the rest of Looper, a violent, imaginative riff on time-travel movies from writer-director Rian Johnson.
There are actually three chases. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) must find Old Joe (Bruce Willis), or the crime syndicate that employs all the loopers (as the assassins are known) will rub him out. Abe (Jeff Daniels), Joes philosophic boss, hunts both men.
Old Joe knows he was condemned in 2074 by a mysterious figure called The Rainmaker, who was born in his own hometown and is one of three 10-year-old boys living there in 2044. If he can kill all three, none will be able to doom him in the future.
Johnson cuts through all the difficulties with time-travel scenarios simply by ignoring them. As soon as young Joe asks the first question of his future self, whom he later meets in a diner, Old Joe exasperatedly shrugs it off.
Johnsons more concerned with the emotional resonance of his story than the physics. Young Joe settles in at a farmhouse where one of the 10-year-olds lives, guarded by a suspicious mother (Emily Blunt) with a shotgun. He comes to care for her and the boy (Pierce Gagnon) and, perhaps for the first time, realizes what sacrifice means.
Johnson makes a mess of details from time to time: People walk around the ancient farmhouse without making boards creak, and characters in suburbia of the future dont even look around when they hear gunshots. The premise of the film dissolves quickly: Mobsters send bodies back in time from 2074, because crime is so detectable then, but we see Old Joe mowing down foes in the street by the dozens then.
Yet the big picture never loses its luster. Johnson (whose feature debut was the 2005 Brick) and production designer Ed Verreaux create a world enough like ours to make us queasily at home, yet futuristic enough to show the ways in which weve changed (not many for the better).
Johnson doesnt explain how we got to such a creepy place, but he doesnt need to. He eases us into new realities so well that we accept odd events: One in 10 kids is born with telekinesis in 2044, a key plot point, and we dont ask how that mutation could happen in just 30 years.
The leads blend as seamlessly as any young-old character coupling Ive seen. The prosthetically altered Gordon-Levitt, unrecognizable at first, really resembles Willis; he clenches his jaw and talks in a low voice through his slit of a mouth. Johnson doesnt give Joe enough back story for us to sympathize with him at first, though we grow to like him. (Were never supposed to get attached to Old Joe.)
Only the mother and little son earn affection or pity. They live in a world ruined and ruled by ruthless men, and they represent the only slim hope of putting it right.