Rian Johnson’s time-travel thriller thinks ahead of the curve

For a film that refreshingly champions ideas ahead of effects and sci-fi noise, Looper rather unexpectedly boasts one of 2012’s most physically impactful scenes.

The fall of Seth (Paul Dano), only friend to our sharp trigger-man hero Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is a thing of innovation and horror.

Like Joe, Seth is a killer for a crime outfit who use the outlawed invention of time travel to send live bodies backwards 30 years to become dead ones.

Seth’s problem comes when he’s asked to “close his own loop” (the film, like director Rian Johnson’s high school noir Brick, is strong on smart shorthand slang), meaning the next body to fall through the decades and into the sights of his blunderbuss shotgun is his own.

Old Seth runs, but his younger self is caught, and in a merciless sequence of ghastly discovery the escaping time traveller loses first nose, then a finger, as unseen dismemberment snakes along the timeline, his helpless disintegration continuing as he races to the scene of his historic torture only to arrive a limbless, tongueless heap.

It’s inherently cinematic - death by the wordless grinding of continuity, limbs lost in the cuts between shots, the dissection carried out with a style and silence that makes the violence all the more effective.

Looper is a film about the mechanisms of consequence, and this particular incident is the successor to Back To The Future’s fading photographs, malice rather than misadventure now the cause of fatal paradox.

It’s also a microcosm of the film’s bigger play, which is Joe’s attempt to close his own loop, Johnson laying down the ground rules of cause and effect that operate in his near-future Midwest with engaging economy.

As well as time travel, mob rackets and Gordon-Levitt’s likeable bad guy, this cool parable juggles hoverbikes, telekinesis and the weapons we can expect hitmen to pack in the 2040s.

It is, in other words, a fantastically well-managed movie, a controlled burst of complementary ideas with plenty to plain enjoy along the way - Jeff Daniels’ sighing, even-tempered crime boss (“I’m from the future: go to China”), the tang of retro chic in the tailoring and rapid talk (‘Gat Men’ look as Raymond Chandler as they sound) and the satisfaction of a well-oiled, thoughtfully conceived vision of a half-familiar future meshing together.

And it all pulls in the same direction, loading us with the necessary information to understand the main event: Joe versus Joe. If there’s anything wrong about the first 30 minutes, it might be Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s face.

Not the regular bits we’re all used to - and some of us are rather big fans of - but the added pieces of prosthetic that the film adds to bring it in line with his Bruce Willis-shaped future.

It has its moments, when once or twice young Joe delivers a still, narrow-eyed “OK...” and the thicker jaw and half-smirking lip give us a definite echo of the irreverent ’80s star Willis once was.

But occasionally it seems like a mask Gordon-Levitt is acting through, and as part of a weaker whole this might have been a more distracting problem. If the prosthetic is a problem, it’s an instructive one.

There’s a reason Johnson and his team should be so keen for their looped hero to look like a single man rather than two actors playing the same role: because the film’s version of time travel isn’t about dazzling narrative potential or fabulous adventures, but a deceptively simple way to trigger introspection.

It’s a mirror, rather than a loop, a gripping, artful lens through which to have characters study their own lives - albeit lives they haven’t yet lived: Willis has locked away memories that young Joe may never be able to reach.

In a whip-through montage of Joe’s unlived potential life, Johnson shows us Gordon-Levitt becoming Willis, decades of decisions solidifying into a changed man, a fixed point in a lifetime’s arc, before that man is prised from his spot on that arc to face his former self.

This dynamic has a great deal going for it, not least because it enables compelling storytelling with conflicting audience interests.

The two Joes can both be just and right, as they’re fighting for different realities: the young Joe for the life he’s not yet had, surely to be taken from him if he doesn’t recover his target, and the old Joe for the future relationship that made his life worth living.

What the looping set-up also highlights is the finite nature of every decision - these timelines have set endings, these lives have finishing points.

Closing your loop, facing your future self, is a reminder that every play you make defines an existence that has an end, which for Joe makes life both precious, and worth taking.

This contradiction is played out in a standoff involving Emily Blunt’s single mum and her young son which dominates the film’s second half. Gordon-Levitt is excellent here, a killer gaining an awareness of the future he might have, touched by warmth and meaning.

And if anything Willis is even better as the man who’s experienced all this and is willing to return to sinning ways to get it back. The satisfying close is more about decisions, consequences and self-determination.

Yet time travel remains the crux - and huge credit to Johnson for taking on such a well-explored theme and recharging it with urgent, emotional force.

Blu-ray trumps DVD with 21 deleted scenes (DVD has only four) and three additional featurettes.

The group commentary has Johnson, Gordon-Levitt and Blunt but no Willis.

Maybe he and JG-L just can’t be in the same room at the same time…

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