Marrying a twisted and twist-filled sci-fi concept with visual flair and grounded performances, Rian Johnson's third feature is a pulpy and cerebral sucker punch that falters only when it strays too far from its pitch-black beginnings.
In the year 2042, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Joe is one of several mafia-employed assassins known as loopers, who are tasked with "taking out the future's garbage". Bound and gagged targets are delivered from 30 years in the future to a waiting looper, who puts a bullet in their head, burns the body and collects their earnings in silver. It's nice, morally bankrupt work if you can get it, until your bosses decide it's time to "close the loop" and send your own future self back for assassination, leaving you with 30 very finite years to live.
Fittingly for a man who completes circles for a living, Joe's everyday life is a bleak cycle of repeated routines against a grimy, nameless cityscape; he finds no more pleasure in the bars he visits than he does in the murders he commits. He's already planning his escape, ready to up sticks to France and live out his remaining years in peace once the time comes for him to commit delayed suicide. But when his older self finally appears in the grizzled form of Bruce Willis, he manages to incapacitate Joe and escape. This is known as "letting your loop run", and it's very, very bad news.
But Looper takes an abrupt 180 turn both tonally and thematically around the halfway mark, when the action moves – with Joe now on the run from his bosses – to a farmhouse in the Kansas countryside. Emily Blunt makes her entrance here as a hard-nosed, gun-toting single mum with skeletons in her closet, and a young son who just might be one of them. The film doesn't stumble even for a moment but it's nevertheless a jarring shift, the flint-greys and hard edges of the first hour giving way to honeyed sunsets and a far more deliberate pace.
What's also lost in this later portion is the slippery, nightmarish sense of this physical world being inconstant, which is first established in a remarkably visceral early sequence following an escaped target. While the farmhouse is far from the idyll it initially appears, nothing that happens there matches the truly disturbing tone Johnson establishes early on. Blunt is reliably strong, but she's asked to carry the latter portion of the film armed only with a somewhat half-baked backstory and a character that doesn't play wholly to her grounded, game strengths.
Nevertheless, Looper is up there with Duncan Jones' Moon and Source Code in the ranks of this century's most genuinely exciting sci-fi films. It deftly builds up its intricate world, populates it with flesh-and-blood characters, sharp dialogue and recognisable dilemmas, and makes it all look just about effortless.