About midway through the new time-travel thriller Looper, the hitman Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) first speaks to a 30-year-older version of himself, credited as "Old Joe" (Bruce Willis). And as the two versions of the same man sit together and try to make sense of what's happening, Old Joe speaks for us all: "I don't want to talk about time-travel shit. If we get started talking about that, we're going to be here all day, doing diagrams with straws."
This little meta moment is indicative of a film that gets the time-travel theme just right: playing the story just below the surface, deep enough to heighten the viewer's perceptions and get his or her mind working, but not so deep that the entire scenario wobbles, as these kinds of films inevitably do under close inspection.
I wouldn't necessarily say that Looper, the third film from writer/director Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom), is the best movie of the year so far. But it's probably the most perfect movie of the year — the one that most fully accomplishes what it's trying to do. There are no reservations here. No wrong turns or underperforming scenes. Looper hooks you in from its opening images and holds you through the last of its 118 minutes.
Gordon-Levitt, whose face has been altered by make-up to more closely resemble Willis, is a "looper" — an underworld assassin in the year 2044. In the film's present, time travel has not been invented yet. But it's coming soon, and a criminal syndicate in the post-time-travel future has sent an associate, Abe (Jeff Daniels), on a one-way ticket back to 2044 to run an assassin program. In this future, tracking devices have made it difficult to dispose of bodies, so when criminals need to get rid of someone, they kidnap and then transport their targets back in time, where they're immediately shot by the loopers. The "loop is closed," eventually, when the loopers are made to kill their future selves, a job for which they are handsomely rewarded and retired, freed to live out their remaining days until that future killing is repeated.
Joe — young Joe, that is — is willing to close his loop, but Old Joe has a different plan in mind, which puts the two iterations into a conflict that quickly expands to include other elements of the future world, which somehow involve Emily Blunt as a gun-toting single mom at a Kansas farmhouse. (How she introduces herself: "I have shot and buried three vagrants this week.")
I won't reveal any more of the story, because much of the pleasure in Looper is in experiencing how these plot mechanics play out without pulling the film too deeply into the morass of time-travel paradox.
I do wonder how well Looper will play on repeated viewings, once its secrets have been revealed. But I suspect it will hold up well. The film's conception of America, circa 2044, is provocative without being too fussy or calling too much attention to itself. Loopers are paid in silver and gold — which arrives strapped to their targets and which they trade in for Chinese currency. Recreational drugs are administered via eye-droppers. The gap between rich and poor has grown, with the former armed, the latter legion, and law enforcement nowhere to be seen.
There's a crucial middle passage of alternate futures — in which Gordon-Levitt morphs into Willis — that's stylish and affecting and takes some teasing over but which locks into place. Richard and Linda Thompson's gorgeous, yearning folk-rock anthem "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight" — which would be 70 years old by 2044 — is deployed in the best and most surprising use of pop music in any recent movie I can remember.
These are marks of a movie that completely nails its high-concept premise but isn't satisfied with just that. Probably the best time you can have at the movies right now.
Opening Friday, September 28th