Looper is like an inverted Terminator: instead of a hitman traveling back in time to kill someone, the victims are sent back in time to the hitman to be killed. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, one such contract killer who matter-of-factly blows away his victims the instant they materialize in front of him. The first section of the film is tight and immersive, as director Rian Johnson introduces us to a fully-realized dystopian 2044 – a decaying metropolis where wealth and power are hoarded by a gun-toting few and where those guns are the only law. The film sags a bit in the middle, when Joe and his time-traveling older self go on the run outside the city, toward something that doesn’t really become clear till the final section of the film.
It’s curious that Looper focuses on a backwater portion of the world it establishes. It seems like 2074 is where the real action is: time travel has been invented and rival mobsters are violently consolidating power. But the film takes an off-center approach, thirty years before the real action begins, focusing on one hitman among many doing a soul-deadening job. The reason becomes clear about halfway through the film, when old Joe decides he’s going to save the future by killing a few children, one of whom (he’s not sure which) will grow up to be the person responsible for most of the terror and violence in 2074. Young Joe decides he’s going to redeem himself and assuage his Judas-like guilt (he gets paid in silver pieces and has betrayed a friend) by saving one of the children. Again, the premise inverts Terminator’s: instead of being about a young boy who’s going to grow up to save humanity, it’s about a young boy who’ll grow up to destroy it.
*SPOILER ALERT* Do you remember the genuine shock of the moment in Taken when Liam Neeson shoots an innocent woman in the arm? Well, Looper one-ups that moment by having old Joe actually kill a little boy, a child who’s too young to have made or to be held responsible for any evil choices. It’s shocking enough to let us know that this film is willing to violate established narrative conventions.
And it does so again soon after, in a bravura slow-motion sequence that reveals the telekinetic powers of the boy that young Joe is protecting. In a wonderful piece of misdirection, it looks like the boy’s mom is rushing to protect him from a fall down the stairs, but she’s actually trying to save Joe from the havoc that the little boy is about to wreak. It’s a jaw-dropping scene that snaps the film’s off-center approach into sharp focus and dramatically raises the stakes in a story that’s seemingly about one lost soul.