2012. 118 minutes. Rated R.
“Ask yourself: who would I sacrifice for what’s MINE?”
In this fast-moving science fiction action thriller, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt plays Joe, a “looper.” Joe explains that 30 years from now (now being 2042), time travel is invented and immediately outlawed. Of course, the syndicates figure out a way to use the illegal technology. They find their targets in the future and send them back 30 years to 2042 where the loopers are waiting at a prearranged time and place to assassinate them the second they appear. Loopers than dispose of the body and get paid.
The future isn’t so swell, otherwise. Joe has only one friend, is addicted to “drops” (a drug dropped directly into the eyes), and sleeps with strippers. Cars are mainly old wrecks that run on solar power and the streets are packed with vagrants in such numbers you literally need to drive around them. But Joe has a plan–he’s been shaving some of the silver off his victims to stash, and is learning French so he can pack up one day, and ditch this life for a better one.
The trouble comes when his only friend Seth (Paul Dano) has his loop closed. That means the mob has decided to do away with your services, so they find you 30 years in the future and send the future you back for you to kill. You unknowingly do so (the targets are always tied up and hooded) and realize you should take your money and go enjoy the next 30 years before you are killed off. Pretty vicious.
Seth figures out it is his future self and ends up letting him go. Then the chase is on for both Seth and future Seth, since letting the future run around free causes all sorts of issues. Seth goes to Joe for help, but after aiding him initially, Joe leads the bad guys to his hiding place as he realizes it becomes a “him or me” scenario. Seth’s capture is boneshakingly horrible.
As you might imagine, this sets up Joe as untrustworthy, so he is the next to get his loop closed. When he realizes his plight, he goes off to enjoy the next 30 years, which are spent on dissolute living in Shanghai (Why not France? “I’m from the future,” says Joe’s boss. “Go to China.”) and morphing into Bruce Willis. The hitch comes when Joe meets the love of his life (Qing Xu) who cleans him up and makes him happy, right up until the day the mob show up to kidnap him, throw him in a time machine, and send him back to be killed. But this time, old Joe is ready to foil his assassination and manages to knock out young Joe. What happens from there on out includes a great deal of action and of the tale of two Joes, both doing their damndest to stay free while they go on opposite missions. Old Joe thinks he has figured out how to get his life (and wife) back if he takes certain actions in 2042. Young Joe knows he has to find and kill Old Joe and hopefully get his life back in the present. These cross purposes lead the two simultaneously in the same and yet different directions, with some heartpounding chase scenes mixed in.
This is definitely one of those films that is intense and can’t be talked about very much with someone who hasn’t seen it. My brain is still boggling over some of the scenes and trying to make perfect sense of them. That there are multiple scenes of Joe’s assassination of himself is one. If you start thinking about what Joe is doing now and how it affects the current memory of old Joe, your brain starts turning in your head.
What the film does badly? There are few things that are never explained or are simply slip ups. One of the largest is Joe going through withdrawal. It takes him one day of shaking like a leaf. The next, he’s fine. Another is the local boss Joe works for, Abe (a wonderfully scruffy Jeff Daniels), who supposedly comes from the future to run the loopers. It is impressed upon us how bad it is for there to exist two identical people in the same time period, so how can Abe be hanging around without worry? His younger self has to still exist.
However, those are small potatoes. Visually, emotionally and character-wise, we get taken on a vivid, mindbending journey. Sometimes the camera lingers on details, like a ceramic ashtray or the brilliance of the eye color that the Joes both sport, and it seems to do so just for the pleasure of putting it on celluloid. Gordon-Leavitt wore prosthetics and contacts to transform his looks into ones that would compare with Willis. His face was broadened and his nose changed to exactly the shape of Willis’. Although I would still never really believe JGL would turn into Bruce Willis (I personally think JGL will age much more handsomely. Is my crush showing?), they do a fabulous job of matching the look. And the filmmakers make sure to match things like a cut in the ear in Joe showing up as a scar in Old Joe. Some pieces of action are pushed into Matrix-slow mo, but the comparison is never overwhelming or unwelcome; it simply draws the eye.
One of the other pleasures of this film is canoodling with the idea of the present affecting the future, and the future affecting the present and of other kinds of loops. Can you break your future loop? Can you break someone else’s loop? Can the actions of one person change the world? Would your memories of the future start changing if you went back in time? Moral dilemmas abound and some of the choices made by the characters may surprise you. Even the most basic character has layers, motivation beyond simple greed or evil. The intricacies of time travel are wisely sidestepped for the most part, with Old Joe’s character joking that if they started talking about it, they’d fruitlessly be trying to make diagrams out of straws.
An unexpected direction the film takes is about the connections between all of us. Young Joe has never truly connected with another human in his life, and is missing it without being fully cognizant of it. But Old Joe has, and it changes all of his motivations. When Young Joe is thrown into a situation that requires beginning to connect with other people, he starts to understand how love can turn your world instead of the greed and self-indulgence that has always marked his own life.
The acting is great from everyone. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt is always believable, showing moments of vulnerability along with bravado and anger. I am sure many people thought JGL wouldn’t work as an assassin, but he carries it off effortlessly. Bruce Willis is happily enjoying his resurgence in acting, and plays his role well. Strong performances from Jeff Daniels, Noah Segan as one of the “Gatmen,” Emily Blunt as a tough and conflicted mother and Pierce Gagnon as a serious kid on the cusp round out the cast.
I don’t go to many movies nowadays where I don’t see the ending coming. I didn’t see half of what was coming in this film, and that made it exciting and filled with “Aha!” moments. While I can’t say it was a perfect movie, I can say I thrilled to its ups and downs and would even, dare I say, watch it again to catch bits I’m sure I missed the first time. When the audience bursts into applause at the end, you know you’ve got a winner.