In about 30 years, according to "Looper," we won't yet have time travel, though we will have designer drugs that we apply with droppers directly onto our eyeballs, and a few people will have starter-kit-grade telekinetic powers. Thirty years beyond that, however, there will be time travel, albeit controlled by organized crime. When the mobsters of the future want someone whacked cleanly, they bind them, toss them into a time machine and ship 'em back in time, where assassins called loopers stand ready to pull a trigger, at a designated hour and location. The bodies are disposed of and never found, because who ever thinks to look for a corpse 30 years in the past?
In an interview with the website io9, writer/director Rian Johnson likened time-travel movies to magic tricks that need to withstand scrutiny only in the instant of the performance. It was his way of apologizing in advance, maybe, for any inevitable plot holes arising when you're slinging characters across space and time, and killing off different versions of them along the way. But "Looper" benefits from enough internal consistency to hold the whole shebang together as a creative, grisly, nerd-pleasing ride stuffed with ample sick thrills, even for a dystopian vision of time-traveling assassins.
Key to the plot is the conundrum when an assassin is sent back to be shot by his own younger self ("closing the loop," in the parlance). Early on, an assassin played by Paul Dano comes crashing into the home of our hero assassin, Joe, played by a darkly dashing Joseph Gordon-Levitt, explaining that he just couldn't shoot his future self. But the criminal syndicate — headed, with villainous insouciance, by Jeff Daniels, of all people — doesn't abide loose ends. Dano's sad-sack assassin is apprehended and held, and soon the old assassin, on the lam, is reading instructions that are carved as scar tissue on his arm. Soon after, his fingers start vanishing. When someone is holding the you of the past, it's a cinch that they can pretty much get you to do whatever they want.
The crux of the action comes when Gordon-Levitt has to face down his future self, played by Bruce Willis, who is a cool future self to have just so long as he doesn't beat you unconscious when you're supposed to shoot him in the chest, per your job description. Soon a twisted manhunt is afoot: Joe aims to kill Old Joe, the mob tries to kill the both of them, and Old Joe tries to head off his own crappy fate by finding and capping the future's most feared criminal kingpin, known only as the Rainmaker, who happens to be a child in the very same city as our overlapping manhunts.
One possible young Rainmaker is a little boy (a precociously freaky Pierce Gagnon) at the farmhouse of an ax-swinging Emily Blunt. The second half of the film runs future-rustic, as your time-traveling mindbender fare collides with menacing boonies. Should you shoot a kid who's going to become a monster? Should you kill your future self if it means saving your life right now? Honestly, does it really make any sense to have loopers assigned to shooting themselves? Does Gordon-Levitt's prosthetics make him look like a young Bruce Willis or just botoxed?
And then, like that, it all wraps. Maybe it is sleight-of-hand, but maybe Johnson is onto something more enduring. For all its flash and bang, "Looper" transcends mere parlor trick — or, at the very least, maintains that heady illusion until the end.