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I adore time-travel pictures like Looper no matter how idiotic, especially when they feature a Love That Transcends Time. I love Somewhere in Time with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, The Time Traveler's Wife, even The Lake House with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in different years sending letters through a magic mailbox. So terrible. So good. See, everyone wants to correct mistakes in hindsight, and it's the one thing we cannot do. Except vicariously, in movies.
Oddly, though, it took me a while to warm up to Looper, an unusually arty time-travel thriller that evokes bits and pieces of 12 Monkeys, The Terminator and Blade Runner — good models, but not when they're blended so haphazardly. Yet there's something in Looper that gets to you.
It's the year 2044 — cars can fly — and the protagonist and narrator, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), explains in one gob of exposition that time travel exists in the future, but is illegal. Yet for some reason, organized crime finds it expedient to send people back to the past to be murdered by "loopers" like Joe. For some other reason, aged loopers in the future are now also being sent back to be killed by loopers, who'd seem, on reflection, the least reliable assassins, given their ties to the people they're supposed to shoot — including, on occasion, their older selves.
That's what happens to Joe: There he is, gun drawn, waiting for a looper to materialize — poof! — and it's him, Old Joe, played by Bruce Willis. No, the two Joes don't meld in your head: Bruce is always Bruce. But you go with it or you leave, so you go with it. Old Joe escapes, which in the peculiar logic of Looper means Young Joe is in the toilet. So Young Joe sends a message by carving a meeting place on his hand, leaving a scar on Old Joe's hand. Painful, but very cool.
If they talk about time-travel, they're "gonna be here all day makin' diagrams with straws" — that's writer-director Rian Johnson giving himself a Get Out of Jail Free card, telling us, "Don't think so much." Looper has been acclaimed by some critics for stylishness and narrative invention, a testament to Johnson's greatest talent: making clumsy storytelling look tricky and sophisticated.
I haven't mentioned the MacGuffin: Old Joe is hunting someone in 2044 who'll grow up to be the "Rainmaker," a future crime boss with supernatural powers who's killing all the loopers. That's when we get the telekinesis stuff, which feels like a different genre, like Carrie or Firestarter. Young Joe stumbles onto the farm of Emily Blunt, who points a shotgun at him in the wheat field and threatens to blow him in half. She has a strange little boy with pouty lips, a big head, and temper tantrums that force her to tuck herself away in a steel cabinet.
The actors hold you through the loop-de-loops, Emily Blunt in particular making emotional transitions that would trip up lesser actresses: Her face is incapable of registering a banal emotion. As Young Joe's boss, Jeff Daniels creates the year's most hateful bad guy by gazing on unfortunates with moist, sympathetic eyes before maiming them with a ball-peen hammer. Gordon-Levitt purges all trace of his puppy-dog persona to play a cynic and drug addict who lives for today, not for the future — until the notion of consequences hits him for the first time ever.
It's a big emotional payoff, happy and tragic in the right measure. And so Looper, frustrating as it is, pulls safely into dock, leaving you to play out all the "what ifs" and "if onlys" as you mull it over with friends or lie in bed. That's the beauty of even semi-coherent time-travel movies: You're making diagrams with straws long after the characters move on.