Time travel will be invented in 2074, and because it is such a dangerous invention, it will almost instantly be outlawed. This does little to stop the technology becoming the sole domain of criminal organisations who use it as a completely untraceable way of killing. They send people back through time to 2044, where assassins known as 'Loopers' kill and dispose of them for huge sums of money, allowing them to live out a glamorous lifestyle amongst the poverty and violence of their own time. The one caveat to the arrangement is that one day they will have to kill their future selves in order to "close the loop" of their existence. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one such Looper who has reached the end of his contract, but at the crucial moment he allows his future (Bruce Willis) to slip away from him. With his former colleagues pursuing him on account of his failure, Joe has to figure out what his future self hopes to achieve and close the loop. Which is where things get complicated.
Looper is a film which has at its centre a battle between the head and the heart, in both an textual and meta-textual sense. The time travel concept is so convoluted and cerebral that in the early going it runs the risk of being a purely intellectual exercise broken up by occasional violence. Though it's worth noting that the film is hardly Primer-like in its complexity since the basic ideas are laid out fairly plainly, but it still requires more heavy lifting on the part of the audience than a typical action movie. At times Looper almost seems like a film with too many ideas (and when was the last time that could be said of a mainstream film not directed by Christopher Nolan?) as, alongside the brain-wrinkling contortions of its time travel, it also somewhat offhandedly introduces a whole subplot about telekinesis, not to mention the glimpses of the Road Warrior-esque urban and social decay that plays out in the background. Writer-director Rian Johnson does a fine job juggling these ideas without the film becoming completely inscrutable, but much of the first act is taken up expounding upon the ideas behind the story, rather than the story itself.
Even the violence itself is somewhat muted, controlled and intellectualised since Joe's methods are, by necessity, so impersonal. He gets an appointed time, he goes to a field with his Blunderbuss, he shoots dead whoever appears, he burns the body. A simple system designed to avoid mistakes. Looper is not an excessively violent film, but there are a lot of these deaths in the early going since they establish how Joe has become numbed to his work, both through repetition of his task and the nihilistic drug binges he descends into after each kill.
Once Joe's older self appears, though, things get a lot messier, and as Joe's carefully maintained life starts to come apart at the seems, the concepts become subservient to the narrative. As well as having to chase down Old Joe, Joe has to stay out of the hands of his employers since they will use him as a means of completing the job that he failed to do. We learn just what that involves early on when one of Joe's fellow Loopers (played by Paul Dano, whose whiny tendencies are put to good use by having him play a pathetic figure) fails to kill his older self, and is taken in by their boss (Jeff Daniels, who gets most of the best lines in a film which is wryly funny throughout), who starts using the young man's flesh in ways which have a life-altering impact on the future version. It's a horrific sequence that nicely underlines why Joe is so intent on killing Old Joe, and why his continued failure to do so would break him out of his medicated numbness, making him increasingly afraid and desperate.
Yet the battle between logic and emotion plays out in the story itself through Old Joe's story and his reasons for wanting to escape despite knowing the danger he places his younger self in. Old Joe has a mission, and that mission requires him to carry out acts which are truly horrible in order to right a future wrong. He's a kind of reverse Terminator, in that regard, but without the ability to detach himself from the situation. At one point, having done what he knows has to be done, he breaks down into tears since he can never truly separate the necessity of the act from its inherent awfulness. Much of Looper is concerned with the cycle of fate and determinism, and the efforts of people within systems trying to break out of or change them, and the brilliance of the film is Johnson's ability to ground the resolution of this thematic concern within the emotional catharsis of the climax.
It speaks volumes about Johnson's audacity that he has almost the entirety of the second act of a science fiction film take place in and around a Kansas farmhouse. It could be merely another case of the film zigging when it might be expected to zag, but it's a decision rooted in more than mere contrariness. By essentially stranding Joe on the farm with a young woman (Emily Blunt) who winds up being central to his story, Johnson is able to deepen the character beyond the slickly violent thug he has been up to that point whilst also laying the foundation for the final showdown, which winds up being surprisingly hopeful given the bleak way in which cycles are depicted as unbreakable and self-perpetuating. Yet that hope doesn't feel like a cop out because it makes sense in the context of the characters.
Whether or not it makes sense in terms of the plot is another matter. Time travel stories are complicated at the best of times, and there are numerous moments in the film which don't make much sense if you really think them through to their logical end. However, Looper does such a good job of powering through its story and grounding it in character that the problems of the concept don't really matter. It's not a film about meticulously working out how time travel would work in a real-life situation, but one in which time travel is used to explore interesting ideas within a piece of popular entertainment. For that reason it can sit comfortably alongside The Terminator as a great example of fun, populist science fiction that walks the fine line between heady concept and gleeful execution.