There's a reason why time travel has been a part of the popular imagination since H.G. Wells' The Time Machine way back in 1895. It speaks to our inability to fix what tracks we've already set. For a concept so draped in science, its reason for existing is incredibly human. What if we could have gone back and seen our Grandpa before he was relegated to a cane and a slowed wit? What if we could have gone back and told our younger selves to stick it out with Celine? What if someone found and slowly choked baby Hitler long before he could even dream of making those trains run so damned promptly? Time travel, for all its quantum mechanics, is the answer to that everlasting question, "what if?" It is also a trap.
Whenever a film delves into the realm of time travel, it inevitably becomes less about the entertainment derived from the mechanism and turns into a logistical durge. Such is the case with Rian Johnson’s Looper, a movie that has become less about his growth as a genre-mashing filmmaker and more about his inability to play with a science and logic that doesn’t actually exist. Instead of discussing how cool it was to see a man from thirty years in the future slowly disintegrate because his younger self was becoming further and further maimed, people start pulling out their copies of A Brief History of Time and thumb through the pages with little reading lights. It's very disruptive during a screening, probably as much, one supposes, as having time travel holes. But this isn't the case for every movie. Logic doesn't seem to hinder Michael Bay in the Transformers films. No one stops to question the science in Midnight In Paris. So why does this scrutiny befall Looper, a film that uses time travel, but isn't about time travel? It's only there to juxtapose two terrific Western stories against each other with an added twist at the end.
Both narratives are practically ripped from the screens of the '40s and '50s. Take Bruce Willis's Older Joe, a reformed scoundrel whose life had been redeemed thanks to a woman who, as a thank you, is innocently gunned down when Willis' past comes back to cash in for services rendered. He sets out to avenge her death by traveling incredible lengths: geographically, temporally, and morally. It's a loving nod to one of John Wayne's most eye-opening performances, Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956), where the Duke's racist hero can't scalp enough Indians in order to save his supposedly kidnapped niece (a browned Natalie Wood) from their "savage" control. Whether or not she wants to be saved is not really part of the equation. Willis' Joe is a similarly selfish individual, fixated on attaining his goal regardless of the ramifications (or, taking the time to realize that his past indiscretions led directly to his beloved wife's murder).
This selfishness is seen in our other protagonist, the younger Joe, capably played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Stop us if you've heard this story before: a young man who rides high with a band of criminals gets turned on, hunted by the same Boss who brought the little scamp into the fold in the first place (much to his chagrin ... possibly). In order to save his own neck, Young Joe camps out in an out-of-the-way farm to await his older self's arrival. Once there, Young Joe begrudgingly learns to care for the hard-off young woman with a tumultuous past (Emily Blunt) and her plucky, troubled son Cid (Noah Segan). After inadvertently falling for her – and seeing the promise in the boy that he could never see in himself – Joe makes a sacrifice for the greater good, ending an old man's life (twice, really) so a younger one can live. You can start with the basic story of Stagecoach (1939) and run forward through about twenty years of Westerns thereafter and find some kernel of this story.
Yes, the boy turns out to have extra special powers that don't exactly match a hundred calvarymen on their horses stompin' over that thar plain. But it does jive perfectly with Yojimbo (1961), Akira Kurosawa's samurai-cum-cowboy "Eastern" featuring one man with a revolver amidst a sea of swords. All of a sudden, the firepower creates a distinct, and exploitable, power advantage. Speaking of which, all the guns in Looper are either short-range rifles (blunderbusses) or glorified six-shooters, with complimentary disposable magazines that can fall out, depending on whether or not the gunman is on the run or just yellow. A bit odd for a technological society that figured out time travel, regardless of how lawless that city is.
The rest of the characters in the universe keep up with these environs, even if the locale is a bit more futuristic urban than your usual old west saloon. First, there is the hangout, a brothel featuring Piper Perabo’s whore with a heart of bronze, at least, if not gold. We have the chickenshit young'un who talks too big for his britches, tirelessly trying to show that he's not as big of a fuck-up as everyone thinks while constantly showing that he is exactly that big of a fuck-up every single time he tries. He's backed by one henchman (Garret Dillahunt) whose shot is as good as his smarts, tracking back to Blunt's for the pivotal (and necessary) first showdown that needs the unexpected help of the innocent (Cid) to get out of. Add Paul Dano's moron, the guy who can barely handle a gun, let alone when one of his screw-ups sends death surely knocking on the door. And Jeff Daniels' beard.
All of this comes to a head beautifully at the end: not just the Western motifs, but the film's general time traveling concept. After a man on glorified horseback is thrown off the cycle, a woman, standing in a barren field with her dead hero, gets the gift of her son and a literal pile of silver and gold from what looks like a tipped-over wagon. The man who described himself to Cid as "a vagrant," (as if that suddenly comes back into style in the mid-21st Century) has his life ended while his pocket watch keeps tick-tick-ticking into the future, one that is now as undefined as any of ours is.
And maybe that's the film's biggest problem: we go from a space where we know definitively what the future will hold, a power that all of us which we could have, and its thrown away for horrible, mortal uncertainty. For all of the film's look into the future, it took Johnson delving into our past to deliver a terribly entertaining film. As for the possible gaps in logic, who knows? Time travel is phooey anyway.