It takes some concentration to follow a plot where flashbacks are flash-forwards and vice versa. Or both. And sometimes flash-sideways. As a character played by Bruce Willis in Rian Johnson's gleefully twisted, mordantly comic, and surprisingly affecting sci-fi noir 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 that bullshit already in 12 Monkeys.
It begins, sort of, in the year 2047 in some retro city dominated by a ruthless crime lord (Jeff Daniels). Time travel, as the protagonist Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) explains in voiceover, has not yet been invented in 2047, but it has been by 2077, and the mob has a monopoly on it. They use it to transport undesirables back to 2047 to be whacked by hit men of that era, called "loopers." Maybe that's what happened to Jimmy Hoffa.
Joe Simmons is a looper. He's well paid in silver, like Judas. But there's a catch. To tie up loose ends, the mob terminates the loopers after 30 years. This is called "closing the loop." Ironically, the looper who does this job is the younger version of the victim. In other words, you end up killing yourself. But with a guarantee of 30 years of employment in the tough economic times of the future, it's not a bad deal.
In that future, everyone ends up looking like Bruce Willis. Also, all the cars are vintage gas guzzlers and pickup trucks. With these and other details, Johnson creates a vivid dystopia exuding dread and squalor. More important, he evokes existential and metaphysical terror. Philip K. Dick and Jorge Luis Borges would have fun with his premise, though it has some holes. (Why would the mob only use time travel to dispose of bodies? What about betting on the Super Bowl?) The myth of the double, the primal scene, the eternal return — it gives you a stomach ache.
But Johnson doesn't settle for the philosophical; he revels in cinema allusions: in addition to 12 Monkeys and La Jetée, there's The Terminator (the main female character's name, played by a plucky Emily Blunt, is Sara), Memento, Angel Heart. . . . So is it derivative? Not really; just a reminder that cinema, like history, is on a continuous loop, forever repeating itself.
HE IS A STRANGE LOOP › Read the director's-cut version of our interview with Rian Johnson online at thePhoenix.com/outsidetheframe.