It must be difficult to know your fate. Like Greek heroes of the ancient past, preordained to fulfill some prophecy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Joe sees the man he will become and tries to stop it. He has his own dreams and desires, and seeing that they don’t come true sets him off. It’s his life, not his future self’s.
Bruce Willis’ Joe is older, balder and wiser. He’s survived his reckless youth, knows the mistakes he made and Young Joe will, and tries to set his younger self on the right path. When Old Joe is sent back from the future to be assassinated by his younger self, he is prepared. He knows his self, something young Joe does not.
Writer-director Rian Johnson’s Looper is a well-structured time-travel thriller. In addition to the two Joe’s, the plot revolves around a woman and her child, a society of futuristic hitmen, a socialist America and a mysterious killer who’s offing the Loopers years after they’ve retired. It’s well structured in its own internal logic puzzle, playing with the rules of time-travel set by standards like Back to the Future, Willis’ own 12 Monkeys, and most notably the movie that inspired it, Chris Marker’s La Jetee.
However, it’s not the time travel but the characters that help this film standout. Or rather, the character Joe played by both Willis and Levitt.
Presenting the same character over a 30-year time frame is nothing new; but putting both iterations of that character, the man that is and the man that will be, presents interesting possibilities. We often think what we would tell our younger selves. How would we instruct them to avoid the pitfalls that we fell into? At the same time, however, it’s those pitfalls that have made us who we are. We are those life experiences.
And how would our younger selves react? When we were younger, we had our own conceptions of who we wanted to be. Nothing would stand in our way. Seeing a broken down version of his self would possibly only make one struggle harder to avoid that path.
Despite their differences, the path sought by both Young and Old Joe revolves around love. It’s the carrot dangling over their head, always just out of reach, at times unknowingly and knowingly determining their actions. This defining trait is clearly demonstrated from Young Joe’s relationship with the prostitute Suzie and her child, to his later relationship with Emily Blunt’s telekinetic Sara and her son, and Old Joe’s eventual discovery of his own true love. These conceptions of love both define and trap the characters in an endless cycle of give and take.
The performance by Willis is appropriately desperate, a man who has teetered on the edge for most of his life and wishes to get back to the solid ground that’s been pulled out from under him. He’s tragically frantic, if not to save his own self but the man that will become here. Levitt’s take on the character is both a turn that’s recognizable as Willis but also a man with his own youthful aspirations. The prosthetics may help Levitt physically look like the older actor, but it’s his performance as the thinking, every man action hero with a soft core that recalls the earlier roles that made Willis’ famous.
It’s a point that is labored over in both the DVD commentary and EPK featurette. While neither belies anything earth shattering about the movie, both serve to underline the intricacies Johnson put into the screenplay, an attention to detail and desire to tell interesting genre stories that has actors apparently lining up to get parts in his features.
This is only his third feature, the other two being the teen-noir Brick with Levitt and the too-clever-for-its-own-good Brother’s Bloom. The confusion manifested by the latter presents an interesting point, as the ending of Looper goes out of its way to make sure the audience is caught up with the story. It’s not an issue addressed in the commentary, but something Johnson was definitely thinking about while creating this piece.
The transformation of the familiar to the unknown is better reinforced in a series of extras discussing the sound design. Composer Nathan Johnson details how found sounds such as treadmills, doorstoppers and industrial fans were mutated to create the atmospheric score. Household plastics, wood and metals were used to create a digital drum kit that mirrored Joe’s fractured America. Additional extras include deleted scenes and an animated trailer.