Arguably the most famous Diner Table Conversation in cinematic history occurred in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) in which Al Pacino’s Cop and Robert DeNiro’s Robber sat across from one another, chatted, ominously but peacefully, and realized that not only were they weirdly in need of one another, they were, in a way, the same person. So say that instead you took that scene and twisted it and made it so the two men sitting across from one another were not simply like each other but were each other?
This moment arrives at the half point of writer/director Rian Johnson’s Looper and is made possible on account of – what else? – time travel. The year is 2044. Time travel has not been invented yet, but it will be. 30 years in the future it has been outlawed and utilized only by organized crime who send palookas back in time to a designated place to be blasted to smithereens by “loopers.” This is the introduction afforded us by the film’s protagonist, Joe, a looper himself, recited in a world-weary groan by Joseph Gorden-Levitt, dazzling in a performance that evokes Phillip Marlowe by way of H.G. Wells.
Rian Johnson’s two previous films were exercises in high style. Brick, also influenced by noir, was a hard-boiled detective story recast in a high school complete with a heightened cadence all its own. The Brothers Bloom, believe it or not, was even more stylized, a grifting film that commented on itself as it went along. Looper, make no mistake, packs references to other films, older and newer alike, but its look and feel, while convincingly conjuring up a futuristic wasteland of a prairie city, is less hyper than his previous efforts. It’s rougher, not as impressed with itself, suggesting that Johnson is growing as a filmmaker while also granting Looper a decided authenticity despite its premise.
Joe explains his profession fails to attract forward thinkers and this is because the possibility always looms of your future self being sent back and, thus, having to off him (you). No arguments, no hesitations, and then collect your golden paycheck and live comfortably for the next 30 years before your already-determined day of reckoning. And sure enough, Joe comes face to face with his future self, played by a glowering Bruce Willis. Old Joe, as he must, gets away, and so now the bad guys are on the trail of Old Joe and Young Joe and Young Joe is also on the trail of Old Joe and that is how, eventually, two versions of the same man find themselves face to face in a rural coffee shop.
Don’t bother yourself with studying the faces of the respective men to see if they really match up. (Maybe one day in the future when time travel is invented, young actors’ older selves can beam back to play the same part in flash forward to cure all picking of nits?) And for that matter, don’t bother yourself with the gaps of logic, of which I’m certain there are plenty, regarding the time travel. As Old Joe himself says at the coffee shop when Young Joe begins going down that road, “We’ll be sitting here all day making diagrams with straws.” Looper isn’t nuts and bolts science, it’s futuristic noir that steadily drum beats its way to action.
In fact, I suspect the primary reason Willis was cast was for the requisite moment when with the company of a few guns he goes, well, all Bruce Willis-y. Let’s not give away too much here but suffice it to say Old Joe is a man with a plan to prevent his younger self from ever having to off him in the first place, a plan that strikes a demonstrative Terminator note and involves, ahem, Sara (Emily Blunt) and her young son (Pierce Gagnon) with Reese – er, Joe, turning up to protect them, unwillingly but then, ultimately, willingly.
If it’s true that the unexamined life is not worth living, Looper presents endless opportunity to make Joe’s life worth living, to load up on existential exploration, to examine his life before he lives it. But instead, upon leaving the coffee shop, Johnson’s screenplay goes in a different direction, opting for the notion of self-sacrifice but bringing it home via third act conclusion that maybe feels just a bit too much like a Rubik’s Cube clicking neatly into shape.
Looper may not leave you breathless, but it will leave you with a lot to chew on. Perhaps at a nearby coffee shop?