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I can’t say for sure that Looper will be the most creative film I see this year. But it seems a pretty safe bet it will be in the top three.

This is both a strength and a (minor) weakness. On the one hand, it hurls an absolute grab bag of cinematic rewards at its audience: A vision of the future that achieves Blade-Runner-like immersion; a genuinely creative use of time travel; a telekinetic subplot with blatant visual callbacks to the groundbreaking Japanese anime Akira; a Keyser-Soze-style mystery about a criminal mastermind from the future; and an anti-hero whose soul is allowed to languish in genuine moral peril.

On the other hand, these ideas would be enough to fuel two movies, maybe three. Yet Looper packs them all into one film with an average running time. It doesn’t so much plunge into its ideas as ricochet crazily off them, never pausing for more than a moment before hurtling into the next surprise. This would not be such a problem if it weren’t for the compounding fact that many of these ideas delve into truly potent moral territory. There is dark stuff here – the murder of children, for example – but Looper’s sheer creative profligacy prevents it from giving these matters the narrative gravity they deserve. Which is not to say Looper is an emotional failure. It is at times quite powerful. It just merely bites off a bit more than it can chew.

The plot, to the extent I can describe it without ruining any surprises, revolves around Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a hired gun for the mob circa 2044. It turns out that in 2074, forensic science has advanced to the point that disposing of a body is well-nigh impossible. That’s left the criminal underworld in an understandably tight spot, for which they’ve developed an elegant solution: send the targets back in time, where specialized assassins called “loopers” can take them down. Joe and his fellow loopers routinely murder masked and anonymous individuals, until the day comes when the mob “closes the loop” by sending back their older self for elimination. Upon doing this final job, loopers are given a huge payout and allowed to live like kings for the next three decades until their preordained fate arrives. “This job doesn’t attract the most forward thinking individuals,” as Joe’s narration dryly observes.

At the beginning, Joe is at the top of his game. By day he is one of the loopers most relied upon by the mob’s 2044 point-man (Jeff Daniels). By night he is a stylish, well-financed, drug-fueled playboy. He also demonstrates the amoral discipline necessary to maintain his stature: in an early sequence, he gives up his best friend (Paul Dano) to a brutal fate when he can’t close his loop. But Joe’s comeuppance is not long in coming. When Old Joe is sent back (in the form of Bruce Willis) young Joe is unable to best him. Old Joe escapes, and all hell breaks loose. The rest of the film involves a three way manhunt between Joe, Old Joe, and the mob. Old Joe also hides a mercurial plan of his own, which may involve a woman named Sara (Emily Blunt) and her young son.

Some of the most enjoyable aspects of the film are the visual choices writer/director Rian Johnson makes to tell his story. This is constantly a source of delight. Where long takes in other movies would follow the primary action in a gunfight, Looper follows a secondary action and then allows the more kinetic stuff to suddenly reinvade the frame. It tricks you with visual choices that first appear to be stylized, but then upon repetition you realize they’re actually literal. Johnson is constantly choosing unusual angles and close ups to bring the audience up short, create a moment to breath in the midst of chaos, and force some reflection.

Johnson fills out his futuristic world with subtle and realistically banal details. The guns and vehicles look beat-up and used, and the future drugs and their effects are plausible. Johnson even throws in a new mutation that allows certain humans telekinetic powers, then promptly reveals this has done little more than produce a subculture of guys who levitate quarters to impress girls. And Looper’s early scenes in particular combine the styles of dress, Joe’s exposed brick apartment, the mob headquarters, and the late night clubs to create a future hipster noir. It’s a genuinely refreshing cinematic world.

I’m not sure how I feel about the make-up job to make Joseph Gordon-Levitt appear more like Bruce Willis. The make-up itself is virtually seamless, but it occasionally creates an overly stylized appearance, and knowing its Gordon-Levitt under there can be a distraction. On the other hand, Gordon-Levitt’s performance does an almost uncanny job of capturing Willis’ clipped mannerisms and his trademark look of eye-pinched bemusement.

Like most time travel films, Looper can’t get the logic of the phenomenon straight. If a man is sent back in time with all his limbs intact, that is a dead-certain, inviolate guarantee that he will keep all his limbs at least up until the moment his older self travels back. If you go back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination, we know you’re going to fail because we know it happened while you were back in that time trying to stop it. So I suspect American cinema makes a big deal over time travel “paradoxes” because American culture is allergic to the idea that our lives are largely determined by forces beyond our control. The paradoxes only rear their head if you make the mistake of thinking the Kennedy assassination could actually be prevented. Traveling back in time to change the past is the ultimate expression of the American belief in individual agency over one’s fate.

To its credit, Looper has a lot of fun with these logical holes, especially in the grisly fate met by Paul Dano. But ultimately it can’t paper over them, even with snarky asides from the characters about how time travel paradoxes give them headaches. Which is too bad, because Looper actually uses time travel and the metaphor of the loop to create an unusually complex and compelling moral ecology. Motivations that in another film would render a character a hero instead turn him into a monster. We see how actions and their consequences reverberate, the damage twisting back through time and space to produce unforeseen consequences.

But I can’t complain too much, because ultimately those paradoxes also allow a character to look forward in time, and to understand how a certain course will harm his fellows and make the world a darker place. In Looper’s telling, time travel’s paradoxes also create the opportunity to learn empathy and decency, and to shift the world’s course by a final climactic choice that carries genuine power. Despite my complaints and its dark and violent content, Looper is one of the most original and exciting films I’ve seen this year. You should definitely check it out.

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