Looper (2012, directed by Rian Johnson)
If there's one thing we've learned about Rian Johnson over his brief career, it's that he has an impeccable sense of genre. Brick understood when to adhere to the beats of the hard-boiled gumshoe film, and when to use it as a springboard for something new. Brothers Bloom, for all its (in my eyes anyway) faults still knew that the most important thing that a con/heist flick has going for it is charm, and that the inner workings of its plot are much less important than the need for the audience to care whether the heroes make it through to the other side.
Which brings us to his latest project, a gritty piece of time travel madness. A successful time travel movie, above all else, needs to keep one thing straight to work: it can't break its own rules. What those rules actually are isn't terribly important. The rules of time travel in 12 Monkeys are very different than the ones in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, or Back To the Future, or Primer, but in every case the movie establishes its rules and sticks to them. Those films don't cheat.
Looper doesn't cheat. Looper, in fact, moves like a beautiful, intricate piece of clockwork, and in doing so joins 12 Monkeys and Bill & Ted's and Back To the Future and Primer on any reasonable list of the greatest time travel movies ever made.
Here's the plot you've got to wrap your head around: it's 2049, and the world's gone mostly to shit. Joe (played with his usual laid-back aplomb by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 'looper', a mob hitman whose targets are people zapped back from 2079 to be offed, because a) forensic technology in 2079 makes it almost impossible to dispose of a body and get away with murder and b) time travel is a one-way trip backwards, and the world of 2079 is even more in the shitter than 2049 and no one has the cash to use the tech other than the mafia, so forget about some university mounting an historical expedition or any of that nonsense. A looper's job is a pretty easy one. Targets arrive at a designated place and time, hooded and handcuffed, and all the killer has to do is pull a trigger and collect the bars of silver strapped to the target's back as payment. Loopers have a limited shelf life though. At some point, just so their future bosses can neatly tie off any loose ends, a looper will find their hit has a bunch of gold strapped to them instead of silver, and they'll realize that they're just killed their future selves. They keep the gold and retire to the good life... for 30 years.
With a setup like that, it's pretty easy to predict what sets the plot in motion. A target arrives, a bit late, on Joe's landing pad and it turns out to be Joe's future self (Bruce Willis in full-on 'grizzled and not joking the fuck around' mode), only he's not hooded or handcuffed and not in the mood to have a hole blown in his chest. Young Joe hesitates, Old Joe gets the drop on him, and all hell breaks loose.
The thing is though, that's all just setup. Once the plot gets going, once those gears start whirring, Looper is simply a work of art in terms of how beautifully all those gear teeth fit together and how well the whole engine just merrily clicks along to a finale that blindsides you until you realize in retrospect that it was totally inevitable.
What really elevates Looper though, beyond an intricate and entirely satisfying plot, is the attention to detail Johnson brings to bear on the material. Biblical allusions abound. Joe(seph) as the prodigal son, his boss Abe(raham) sacrificing his looper 'children' when called on to do so (Abe, by the way, is played by Jeff Daniels, who knocks it out of the park as a guy who never lets his feelings get in the way of the job), the fact that the loopers are paid in silver... those allusions may be little more than window dressing but they add some nice grace notes to the film. The plot also borrows a lot of familiar elements from other time travel stories, and really classic science fiction in general, but Johnson has fit those elements together seamlessly into a movie that, if not what you could call new, is certainly fresh. Even the design of the world is outstanding. This is not a shiny happy glossy future. The homeless can be shot down in the streets without consequences if they seem at all threatening, and there are a lot of homeless both inside and outside of the cities. Most technology is from their recent past (i.e. our present), desperately jury-rigged to make it more environmentally-friendly (there are a lot of rusted-out cars powered by solar panels stapled to their hoods in Looper). In fact, all the tech seems to have a dirty aesthetic somewhere between steampunk and DIY, contributing to the sense of a society held together by little more shoelaces, chewing gum and a quick soldering job.
Really, there just aren't any glaring weak links here. Emily Blunt is sassy, sexy and pretty much perfect as a single mom caught in the crossfire between the Joes, while Paul Dano and Garret Dillahunt both show up and shine as fellow loopers, doing Dano-ish and Dillahunt-ian things. About the only thing that's a little off is the makeup job they give JGL to make him look like a younger Bruce Willis, but you quickly get used to it.
Looper is, quite simply, an astounding piece of work: a fantastically entertaining film and an airtight, engaging puzzle that lets you think you're one step ahead of it while it remains two steps ahead of you.