Time travel stories don't always have to give you a headache. Sometimes, they're just damn cool.
In Rian Johnson's Looper, a crime boss from the future named Abe (Jeff Daniels) makes a point about the way things "come back around," that is, that everything is recursive and our relationship to the past informs where we go in the future.
He's summing up a theme of the film, but without the deep, nuanced world created by Johnson, it wouldn't mean much. Working from his own tightly-crafted script, Johnson posits a future world (or two) that looks all too plausible, but all too dramatically compelling. In Kansas 2044, society, heavily influenced by Chinese emergence, is split between two classes. The haves and the have-nots. The haves commit crimes because it makes them richer; the have-nots commit crimes because they need to survive. It's a harsh world, one that's completely lived-in and fully-realized. This much is apparent in a first act filled to the brim with ideas: this isn't just any action thriller. Before long, it's obvious that Looper is a fantastically engaging and often very smart film that is audacious enough to let it's world-building character moments come to the fore and provide a balance for the balls to the wall action setpieces that make a viewing audience cheer in delight.
In 2074, time-travel technology is outlawed, so of course it rests in the hands of organized crime syndicates, who use it as a weapon against their enemies. Victims are sent in time back to 2044, where a hitman, known as a "Looper," executes them on the spot and collects the quantity of silver that is sent with them as payment. Thus, the mob gets rid of its enemies, and Loopers can live high on the hog, driving souped-up sports cars, taking lots of drugs, and hanging out in brothels. They are the upper class in society, and all anyone else can do is sit and starve while watching the rich boys have fun. The Loopers are presented as a type of frat-boy gathering of partying assholes who have fun with their job and the perks it brings them. Eventually, Loopers are finding their Loops getting "closed," that is, they're killing their own future selves, meaning their contracts are terminated, and they're free to live on however they wish (most of them plan to party it up for their remaining thirty years). It's intimated that there is a new crime boss in the future, and he's shutting down the Looper program. One Looper named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) complacently goes through life until his good buddy Seth (Paul Dano) lets his own future self go, which brings up all kinds of complications (and leads to a bravura chase sequence where a man literally dissolves into nothing while his younger self is tortured and eventually killed). Ultimately, Joe ends up encountering his older self (Bruce Willis), who is taking it upon himself to change the future. This encounter opens up the themes of the movie, as not only does the past affect the future, but vice versa as well. More practically, this is also an opportunity for Johnson to zig when the viewer expects him to zag. Resisting the urge to write a time-displaced buddy action film, Johnson instead presents a taut character drama, where time-travel gimmickry is thrown in the back seat in favor of a sequence of events that make us wonder about the fate of its protagonists (and antagonists), as well as the society that brings them all together.
Johnson is nervy enough to allow the themes of the film to reveal themselves gradually and via the characters themselves, rather than by using the time-travel conceit to gimmick up the works. It's a pretty bold plan, really. The world the film takes place in becomes the real star here, and works itself through the narrative via a, well, looping, Chekov's Gun-type of structure that sends characters and events out in various directions before having them circle back and meet each other again. Along the way, expectations are averted (though there are some points, particularly in the relationship Piper Perabo's prostitute character has to the two Joes and their time periods, where the script starts to flirt with Hollywood convention), and firearm-based action setpieces flow like the blood oozing out of a bullet wound. Somewhere in there, Johnson elicits distinctive performances from his actors. Daniels leans heavily on his Will McAvoy line delivery, but ends up imbuing his lines with a shaggy, world-weary charm that reveals much about his character. Emily Blunt ends up having to carry much of the second half of the film as Sara, a single mother living on a farm who has to protect herself and her son from circumstances she never wanted to be in the middle of. While leaden at parts, her performance is ultimately soulful and effective, and Sara ends up spending more time in the foreground than either of the two highly-hyped stars (who are impressive in how much they're willing to showcase the fact that they are servants to eventuality, and who convey the theme of man's relationship to his world wonderfully). As to young Cid, played by Pierce Gagnon, he just about steals the film (between this and Beasts of the Southern Wild, it's been a great year for child actors).
Johnson's screenplay is so well-crafted and realized that the most remarkable thing about it is the fact that everything pays off the way it does. He introduces a lot of elements, but does so subtly and uses them to shade the background of the film until he needs to bring to the forefront, something he does so deftly that it feels almost effortless. There is a strange bump in the narrative early in the second act, when a presumed alternate eventuality is exhibited, only to be dropped and never brought up again (this device is not a recurring motif in the film). Still, he is able to guide the narrative with exceptional character development and narrative purpose, rendering his action sequences even more thrilling. Johnson lays a lot of pipe here; we're rarely given more information than we ever need, and anything that is brought up has a place to go to for payoff (for example, the subplot about telekinetic powers and how that plays into things). It brings up ideas of who we are, and how deciding what kind of person we're going to be affects the world around us. While ostensibly taking inspiration from La Jetee, The Terminator, and 12 Monkeys, Johnson synthesizes an indelibly singular vision, and hopefully provides the blueprint for the way action films are done in the future. Looper is dense without feeling overstuffed, and always engaging (and engaged). It's a mature and greatly satifsying work, and it's one of the finer films of the year.