It's a sign of the changes in American cinema that Westerns, while once the bread and butter of Hollywood, have been in sharp decline in quantity and quality for over thirty years as of now. Nothing perhaps could have signaled this more than the historic one-two punch of the megahit that was Star Wars, and the megaflop that was Heaven's Gate. Star Wars ushered in the age of the modern blockbuster, setpiece-driven high adventure in which the art of spectacle was honed down and perfected to a science. Heaven's Gate, on the other hand, made Westerns among the most unprofitable genres ever in the minds of Hollywood ever since it killed the studio of United Artists.
Though a trip to the movies these days show that the Western may be returning somewhat in hybrid forms, either in cartoon parody (Rango), as a major influence on a young adult franchise (The Hunger Games), in noir as Drive, and in the form of Looper, as sci-fi. Perhaps because in less rosy economic times such as these, where the institutions of modernity reveal much less to be trusted and the belief in material progress much diluted, does turning to the visual iconography of an imagined past become the means by which society finds a compass for its future.
The world of Looper certainly doesn't stray from the downbeat. In a crapsack and angry 2044, the United States still retains much urban infrastructure and contains some industrial advances, but there's no doubt that on the level of its social institutions it has sunk to levels approximating the Wild West. Cities barely have a police presence and are now controlled by gangs that more often than not resemble the outlaws of the Old West in their rough codes of honour, especially the duster-wearing, revolver-wielding Gatmen, and the jacket-wearing Loopers, who use (yes, to borrow that 18th Century term) Blunderbusses: firearms that have only a range of 15 feet, no more no less. They're called Loopers because time travel will be invented in 2074 though illegal, and the mob of 2074 will dispose of the bodies back in 2044, where the Loopers will kill them for handsome rewards. When the time comes and if these Loopers are still alive in 2074, their loops will be closed as they will be nabbed and killed back in 2044. Meanwhile, everyone wishes to go to China or France.
As our hero Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) says, Looping is not a job for those equipped with foresight. Like all Loopers, Joe is a fast-living man of violence for whom killing is a daily routine, and the hours after work are whiled away at clubs on drugs, or in the arms of the showgirl and prostitute Suzie (Piper Perabo) while stockpiling enough silver for him to move to France. Though even his superior Abe (Jeff Daniels) suggests China as a better location. Without a real family, the mob has been his home ever since they put a gun in his hands. Loopers that botch their jobs are quickly killed, and the heretofore prudent Joe soon realizes that he's not far behind when in attempting to kill his future self (Bruce Willis), his future self turns out to be an even tougher dude than he is, and promptly gets away.
In the process of trying to save his own hide from his colleagues and accomplish his mission, Young Joe soon runs into single mother Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) who eke out a hardscrabble existence on a farm, and becomes their protector as well as a father figure to young Cid. Yes, it's pretty much a re-enactment of Shane all over again.
The performances are great across the board. Joseph Gordon-Levitt again continues his ascent to megastardom, more so than his prosthetics. Levitt channels a performance that so ably captures the mannerisms and quirks of Bruce Willis, that in the film's key scene where the two of them are together facing each other in a diner, you are completely convinced that these two are the same person 30 years apart. Emily Blunt is for a second or two barely recognisable in her transformation from her usual proper English Rose roles to that of a hardscrabble Midwestern farm girl. The child actor Pierce Gagnon is all at once terrifying and heartrending in showing that there is nothing as pure as the rage, and sad as the tears, of an innocent child. Veteran Jeff Daniels, reteaming with Gordon-Levitt after The Lookout, plays his mob boss character with equal parts ruthlessness and honour.
The paradoxes of time travel films are too well-worn to warrant another discussion for this review, so I press forward to say that Rian Johnson's success with Looper is not because he is able to work with the metaphysics and paradoxes of time travel but because he extends the concept of the Loop as a metaphor that encompasses the cycles of violence and destruction the characters find themselves in. This is a loop broken only by the warm bonds of humanity: Joe's relationship with this mother and child, and one of Old Joe's relationships in his temporal continuity (with whom I won't say to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible), that force them to see that there is a future containing some kind of redemption for them, and that at least they can instead of living for themselves in the here and now, make a future that will at least be better for somebody. In this way, they become the 21st Century answer to the Old West gunslinger, whose tragedy of being sunk in a life of violence dooms him to never partake in the peace of civilisation that his actions will bring even as these same actions will cost them everything including the possibility of love. Yet only in acknowledging the presence of a future that they know they might never see and choosing to act on it do they rise to their higher, more heroic selves.
In its ability to find and cling onto the heart of its story that Looper becomes a science fiction film that will easily appeal to non-fans of the genre, and it is for its ultimately tenderhearted story that audiences will stay.