It's not a good idea to watch a screening of "Looper" at 9 am your first day at the Toronto International Film Festival. At least if you haven't had any coffee yet. Not to keep you awake, but to keep you alert. It takes some concentration to follow a plot where flashbacks are flash-forwards and vice versa and both. And sometimes flash-sideways. As a character played by Willis puts it, "Don't get started on that time travel bullshit. We'll be here all day." And Willis ought to know, having gone through similar bullshit already in "Twelve Monkeys" (1995).
Directed by Rian Johnson ("Brick," "The Brothers Bloom"), it takes place (the following may contain spoilers, if you can figure out what the heck I'm talking about) in the year 2047 in some shabby, heavily retro city dominated by a crime lord from the future (Jeff Daniels, a nicely sinister switch from his normal affability). Time travel, as the protagonist Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) explains in noirish voiceover, has not yet been invented in 2047, but it has been by 2077, and it's in the hands of the mob. They're using it to transport undesirables back to 2047 to be whacked by hitmen of that era, called "loopers." Maybe that's what happened to Jimmy Hoffa.
Joe Simmons is a looper. He's well paid in silver (not 20 pieces, but close enough); however, there's a catch. To take care of loose ends, the mob terminates their contracts with the loopers after 30 years. This is called "closing the loop." Perhaps in a touch of poetic justice the looper who does this job is the younger version of the victim himself (there don't seem to be any female loopers, so apparently feminism has not made any strides in the past 35 years). In other words, you end up killing yourself. But after 30 years of steady, lucrative employment in these tough economic times, it's not a bad deal.
Here we learn that in the future, everyone ends up looking like Bruce Willis. Also, all the cars are vintage '60s and '70s gas guzzlers and pick-up trucks. But though Johnson shows some wit and an eye for detail and dread in creating a shithole of a future, that's not what I found so fascinating and brain addling about the movie, but rather the mythic and metaphysical allusions and implications. This is a premise, though full of holes (I just don't buy it that the mob only uses time travel to dispose of bodies. What about betting on the Superbowl?), is something that Philip K. Dick and Jorge Luis Borges would have a lot of fun with. The myth of the double, the Freudian primal scene, the eternal return. Don't get me started - it gives me a stomach ache.
And Johnson has fun, too. Not just with the philosophical baggage implicit in the notion of time travel, but also in the world of cinema allusions he can connect with. Without seeming derivative, "Looper" playfully touches on other movies of this kind, starting obviously with "12 Monkeys" and Chris Marker's "La Jetée" and including "The Terminator" (the main female character's name is Sara), "Memento," "Angel Heart," among many others. Not to mention echoes of generations of noirs and gangster movies.
In short, it gives you a lot to think about. And it's good preparation for the Tykwer/Wachowskis adaptation of David Mitchell's labyrinthine "Cloud Atlas" that will be screening in a couple of days. Also, it turns out, for the baroque, black comic shenanigans of Martin McDonagh's "Seven Psychopaths." Which I would see that evening.