“Show me her picture, and as soon as I see her, I’ll just walk away.”
—Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
“I do the necessaries,” says Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), “And collect my silver.” Joe talks like what he is, a killer paid by gangsters. He’s pragmatic and efficient, introduced at work, which is to say, blasting away at a victim who’s bound and hooded and kneeling on a plastic tarp in a Midwestern-looking field. Joe’s gun is loud—it’s called a blunderbuss—and effective. The victim collapses with a bloody splatter.
From here Looper cuts to a scene showing Joe’s other side. Seated in a diner booth, he greets his waitress by name, Beatrix (Tracie Thoms), and practices his French. He has visions of another life, he says, living off his silver, far from the blunderbuss and the splattering blood.
As familiar as Joe’s story sounds, it’s got a couple of twists. Joe’s killing people in 2044, people sent back from 2074. “Time travel has not yet been invented,” Joe doesn’t quite explain, “But 30 years from now it will have been.” The conditional tense indicates a wily understanding of the concept, and even as Joe narrates in his present, his future, older self (played by Bruce Willis) is on his way back to his past. For the other twist in Joe’s story is that loopers are expected not only to kill a lot of other guys, but also, in the end, themselves, their future selves. “It’s called closing the loop,” Joe says.
Older Joe has a good post-lopper life. He opts for Chinese rather than French, and ends up soothed by an unnamed Chinese wife (Qing Xu), whose silence in their scenes together is augmented by a kind of gauzy slow-motion effect. She’s the dream of post-death life and also the dream of inevitable death, the sign of Joe’s salvation and the source of his guilt, for of course, she will suffer for his sins. And as she suffers, shot in slow motion by future thugs, Joe watches in anguish: dying on the floor of their vaguely Eastern-exotic sanctuary, her face appears in close-up, tears and endless love in her eyes. Looking at her as you look at her, Joe comes up with a plan.
That plan won’t quite as he imagines, in large part because young Joe sees the loop of life and death, payment and guilt, in a different way than his older self. When old Joe is sent back to have his loop closed, he manages to survive the blunderbuss and then to suggest an alternative to young Joe. Old Joe means to save the unnamed wife, he says, by killing the man who will order his (and so, her) death, an unseen gangster kingpin called the Rainmaker.
At first, this alternate plan makes something like sense, proposed in the diner where Beatrix works. The two Joes sit across from one another, distrusting one another, anticipating betrayal and use of the blunderbuss. Old Joe’s scheme is trouble for the gangsters, who have a stake in closing loops, while young Joe feels something like loyalty to his employer, Abe (Jeff Daniels), sent back from 2074 to keep the gangsters’ world in order. Sometimes, the intersections of present and future plots is too convenient, as when young Joe’s blustery associate, Seth (Garrett Dillahunt), finds a personal reason to target him, setting up a rivalry that’s incidental and gaudy or a young looper’s bad choices lead to horrific injuries for the old looper, as his fingers and nose go missing. At other times, the intersections are downright clever, as when Abe advises young Joe to learn Chinese rather than French, his reasons summed up in, “Trust me, I’m from the future,” and so sets a crucial piece of Joe’s life path in motion.
But mostly, Looper is interested in mapping gangster movie conventions onto sci fi, not unlike director Rian Johnson’s Brick mapped noir onto high school movies. You might marvel at intricacies, the neat fitting together of clichés and tropes, as young Joe sees holes in his plot’s fabric and old Joe doubles down on his plot, deciding that killing little boys in the past will stop mayhem in the future. But you might also start to wish the fitting together was less neat, and that some tropes might be called out rather than merely repeated.
So, even as you’re already dismayed by the symbolic Chinese beauty, Looper‘s plot turns both more complicated and less sensible (that is, both more and less like The Terminator or, god forbid, Time Cop). On the run from Abe’s guys and old Joe and probably someone else too, young Joe finds himself in Kansas, where he meets Sara (Emily Blunt). A sugar cane farmer with a five-year-old named Cid (Pierce Gagnon), Sara’s not a little bit like Sarah Connor after Reese, but not quite comprehending John’s fate. She knows her way around a gun and chops wood each morning with conviction.
Cid’s fate is sort of unknown but obviously consequential, an idea underlined by his seemingly uncontrollable temper tantrums, so scary and grandly FX-ed that Sara has constructed a safe room where she can hide until they’re over. As she and young Joe sort out their moral compasses with regard to big pictures and world-affecting time loops, old Joe’s remains pretty much fixed on the unnamed wife. Symbolic as she may be, she remains something of a fixed point old Joe can’t quite see beyond, and this idea is underlined by old Joe’s repeated flashbacks to her death. He can’t forget that moment, which means he can’t let anyone else forget it either.
But here’s the rub, as Looper presents it: loops exist because of memory, and forgetting is the only way even to think about change. It’s a complex notion, and one the film can’t wholly work out. More than one looper here advises another, “Hop a freight train and beat it the hell out of town,” meaning, there’s no fixing what’s happened and so all you can do is take your silver and escape your past for as long as you can—until it becomes your present and, eventually, your future is no longer imaginable. It’s a notion at once grim and brilliant, tangled up in boys’ visions of missing noses and blunderbusses. In another loop, you imagine, Beatrix is seeing something else.