You can’t accuse Rian Johnson of lacking ambition. Best known for his polarizing debut film, the 2006 high-school noir picture Brick, Johnson has come up rapidly through low-budget indie cinema. His third film, Looper, is his first big-budget Hollywood project, and, man, does he lay down a marker. In fact, the 38-year-old lays down what may well be the best science-fiction thriller of the year. It’s certainly the cleverest.
The main story is set in Kansas in 2044, 28 years before the invention of time travel. With society in chaos, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) makes a prosperous living as a contract assassin whose mobster bosses in the future send their victims back to him to be killed. Joe and his fellow assassins are called “loopers” because if they’re still alive 30 years after their contracts are up, their aged future selves, or their “loops,” are sent back to them to be disposed of in the same way as their other victims, along with a gold-bullion payoff designed to last the looper for the next three decades. Joe doesn’t question the way the system works until the night his best friend and colleague Seth (Paul Dano) comes to him after a harrowing encounter with his loop, who describes a future world so terrible that it needs to be averted. When Joe subsequently finds his own loop (Bruce Willis) in front of him, he has some hard choices to make.
This setup becomes even more complicated once the story starts rolling, but Johnson sets things out so assuredly that you won’t get lost. He has a grand time evoking the world of 2044 — levitating motorcycles! narcotics delivered via eyedrops! — and does so with an imagination that puts other futuristic thrillers like that Total Recall remake to shame. His acute sense of visual composition tightens up the film’s narrative and gives us pleasing things like a Rorschach blot-looking shot of Joe’s regular hooker (Piper Perabo) reclining in a chair in front of a floor-to-ceiling mirror. Johnson peppers the movie with comic relief, such as Joe’s interactions with his boss (Jeff Daniels) and a bumbling henchman (Noah Segan). These bits punctuate the air of gathering dread that Johnson builds up. A ghoulish scene ensues when Seth’s loop (Frank Brennan) tries to make it to safety while his younger self is captured by the mob. The older man suddenly finds important things going missing.
Hearteningly, the movie doesn’t lose focus during its second half, when the action slows down and the special effects mostly go away. As Joe’s fellow mobsters hunt him down for letting his loop escape, Joe hides out at a remote farm owned by a single mom named Sara (Emily Blunt) and looks out for his older self, who has turned into a monster in his quest to right the future. The drama is anchored by a superb performance from Gordon-Levitt, who’s subtly made up to look like someone who might age into Willis. He excels at portraying abandoned boys who’ve grown into angry young men (Mysterious Skin, The Dark Knight Rises), and he provides a whole new variation on the theme here: a hardened killer whose heart is softened just slightly in the presence of this mother and her young son (Pierce Gagnon), whom she loves but is also frightened of. Somehow Gordon-Levitt has avoided the discussion up until now, but in light of his skill, his excellent taste in projects, and his range (you’d never recognize the actor here as the one from (500) Days of Summer), we really should start considering him as one of his generation’s best actors.
For all their stylization and pyrotechnics, Johnson’s films always try to reach you on a deeper emotional level, even if (like his second film, The Brothers Bloom) they don’t always connect. The blood-soaked climax here hinges on the redeeming power of a mother’s love, and I found Johnson’s rendition of it to be just the tiniest bit off. However, this hardly diminishes the impact of scenes like the one that precedes it, when an assassin (Garret Dillahunt) is sent to Sara’s farm and instead meets a particularly awful death. Both the horror of his fate and the diabolical ingenuity with which it comes about will make you gasp, and they are both typical of this thriller, which is filled with plot developments that are logical and yet wholly unexpected. In Looper, a breathtaking talent has moved to the mainstream. Take note.
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt. Written and directed by Rian Johnson. Rated R.