What’s the matter with Kansas in the year 2044? In The City — it could be wicked Wichita, or up-to-later-date Kansas City — most folks must beg for food on streets strewn with junkyard-reject cars. The City’s one percent includes a class of underground overlords, the crème de la crime, who ride cool hoverbikes, party at louche nightclubs and ingest a hallucinogenic drug through eye drops. Murder certainly pays for Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a “looper” whose job is to kill people sent back from 30 years in the future, when backwards time travel has been perfected, outlawed and criminalized. The victims pop up, kneeling and hooded, and Joe blasts them away with his blunderbuss. Problem is that when the loopers survive into the 2070s, they too will be bagged, teleported and killed. As Joe notes, “This job doesn’t tend to attract the most forward-thinking people.”
Set in two points in the future — 2044 Kansas and 2074 Shanghai — Rian Johnson’s knotty, gnarly sci-fi drama Looper doesn’t bother much with elaborate imaginings of the bleak world ahead of us. No spaceships or Star Trek uniforms are on display, and no next-generation gadgets except for the hoverbikes and the time-travel device: a clunky gray apparatus that looks like a washing machine made in Stalin’s Russia. Nor do emissaries from the 2070s try clarifying time travel for the uninitiated. “This time-travel sh-t fries your brain like an egg,” shrugs Abe (Jeff Daniels), the Fagin from the future who employs Joe.
(READ: Stephanie Abrahams’ interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
Another man, who tells Joe he can’t be bothered with an explanation that involves “makin’ diagrams with straws,” has a vaguely familiar affect — partly because he is played by Bruce Willis, mainly because he is Joe, transported 30 years from the future. In 2074 Shanghai he had retired from the murder business and found love with a Chinese woman (Qing Xu). When his beloved was killed and he was summoned by a mysterious supervillain known only as the Rainmaker to be terminally looped, Older Joe overcame his captors, jumped into that Soviet-era Maytag and zapped himself back to 2044 to change history as he knows it — to restore his lost love. This sacred mission means mortal danger for at least two people: a woman, Sara (Emily Blunt), living in farmland isolation, and her unusual child, Cid (Pierce Gagnon).
(READ: Corliss’s tribute to Bruce Willis in a review of Surrogates)
Does your head hurt reading this? Mine did writing it. If a two-time viewer of Looper may simplify the plot for first-timers, the movie is The Terminator with a twist. It suggests that the young son of a nice, smart, strong single mom might be the scourge, not the savior, of the future. So Looper juggles two weighty themes: whether nurture can overcome nature in the incubation of a potentially monstrous personality; and, in the matter of the two Joes, whether homicide can be suicide. Can a young man resolve to kill his older self?
A fanciful film with the patina of hyper-realism, Looper is well served by actors who behave not as if they were dropped carelessly into the future but spent their whole desperate lives there. Daniels, playing a 2070s man transferred to the 2040s as if it were the foreign posting for a career Army man, carries himself with the wise weariness of a middle-management killer. Paul Dano, in a small role as the hero’s hapless friend — sort of an Elisha Cook, Jr., to Joe’s Humphrey Bogart — is a Jell-O blob of neuroses, wildly agitated and instantly disposable. Gagnon is creepy-good as Cid, and Blunt goes appealingly sinewy as a farm woman tending a cane field. (Cane fields in Kansas, you ask? Like a dozen or so other films released this year, including 21 Jump Street, The Lucky One, The Campaign, Killing Them Softly, The Paperboy, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and both Expendableses, this movie was actually shot in Louisiana.)
(READ: Belinda Luscombe’s profile of fashionable Emily Blunt)
In his impressive debut feature Brick, made in 2003 and released three years later, Johnson imposed the intricacies of a Raymond Chandler detective novel on a high-school milieu (with Gordon-Levitt as a teen Philip Marlowe). Looper is another such hothouse hybrid, mashing Quentin Tarantino and Philip K. Dick into a species of pulp science fiction. Not content to create a retro-future world where young Joe sports natty jackets and thin ties (“The movies that you’re dressin’ like,” Abe tells him, “are just copyin’ other movies”), Johnson also wants to force a physical resemblance between the actors playing Joe. How does Gordon-Levitt start to morph into Bruce Willis? With the help of makeup and, possibly, some digital sorcery around the mouth, Clutch Cargo-style. (Joe also passes through a brief phase when he looks like Jimmy Kimmel.)
(READ: Corliss’s blurb on Brick)
None of this was mandatory, since the connection of the two Joes is evident from the get-go, but Johnson may think the audience needs persuading to believe that Gordon-Levitt, the former child star whose adult career has been defined by nice-guy roles in (500) Days of Summer and 50/50, could ever mature into the Die Hard tough guy. Prosthetics and visual effects aside, it’s still a weird fit. The actors are separated by more than age; they represent different views of the movie male, now or 30 to 60 years in the future. They’re so different, in fact, that those watching Looper may wish to see a movie covering the three intervening decades that turned the young, cocky but essentially soft Joe into the haunted hard case who would risk his life and kill hundreds, including a few children, to revive the woman he loved. That could be a splendid sequel to the fascinating — if not quite fabulous — double-helix Looper.