Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in the action thriller "Looper." (Sony Pictures Entertainment via the AP)
Rated R for violence, language, sexuality and drug references.
Can we change who we are — and if so, at what cost?
That little conundrum has consumed philosophers and novelists for centuries. And it gets fresh, mind-bending twists in writer-director Rian Johnson's awesome new film, "Looper."
Johnson places that puzzler within the framework of time travel — raising the tantalizing possibility of a hands-on, near-instantaneous rearrangement of your own cosmic feng shui.
In doing so, he creates a dizzying scenario that constantly doubles back, overlaps and folds in on itself, in much the same way that "Inception" did with the dreamscape of the inner mind.
But as any pulp-fiction/sci-fi fan knows, the space-time continuum represents a particularly dicey paradox. Jump into the past and step on the wrong cockroach, and the future you just left may end up a flaming wasteland. Ditto if you jump into the future before stepping on the right cockroach in the past you just departed.
As one character astutely notes, "This time travel s--- will fry your brain like an egg."
That maxim comes to have a fateful impact on Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who makes his living as a "looper" in 2044 Kansas, depicted as a seedy, desperate, dystopian society.
As Joe's introductory voiceover explains, time travel has not been invented in his day, but 30 years in the future, it has been (will be?) — and was instantly pegged as so potentially dangerous that it was made highly illegal.
In that world, time travel is used only in secret by the largest criminal syndicates. At set times, hapless mooks marked for execution wink into existence, tied and hooded, at the edge of an isolated cornfield, where Joe stands ready to blow them away and collect his fee — silver bars strapped to their backs.
Then he disposes of the bodies, which technically don't exist.
When the bosses decide to end a looper's contract, they send his future self back to be executed by his present self, with extra pay in gold bars. The looper is then free to live high off the hog for the next 30 years — until time travel is invented and his future self is sent back for execution at the hands of his present self.
As Joe explains, "This is called ‘closing the loop.' " And it's the main reason targets are sent back wearing hoods; the bosses don't want loopers hesitating when faced with offing their future selves, since the future selves tend to flee in a blind panic when they see the opportunity.
Joe again: "This is called ‘letting your loop run' — not a good thing." When a looper's present and future selves wander around the same timeline, the whole construct starts to wobble.
We see this firsthand when Joe's friend and fellow looper Seth (Paul Dano) comes face to face with his future self. What happens to both Seths is as mesmerizing as it is grisly.
Of course, the moment arrives when Joe's future self appears in the form of Bruce Willis — and it's straight down the rabbit hole in ways that can't even be hinted at without spoiling the fun.
It's really two distinct but linked narratives; the early going is heavy on action thrills as Willis and Gordon-Levitt (in makeup that makes him look like a young Willis) mix it up while pursuing their intertwined destinies.
But the film becomes something else about halfway through with the appearance of single mom Sara (Emily Blunt) and her very young but eerily mature son Cid (Pierce Gagnon, nailing all his scenes), who has a dark secret that could have epic effects on Joe in the present and future.
Johnson wrote and directed the film "The Brothers Bloom" and two episodes of "Breaking Bad," but nothing on his resume would make you believe he had a tour de force like this up his sleeve.
He draws great performances from Gordon-Levitt, becoming one of our greatest actors, as well as the underrated Blunt.
And Willis reminds us just how good he can be when he gets a non-cheesy script to chew on. A scene in which the old and young Joes confront each other in a dusty roadside diner is particularly riveting.
Packed with in-your-face thrills, subtle emotional subtext and a killer ending, "Looper" is the kind of film you want to see more than once to make sure you caught it all — one of the most creative and compelling flicks of 2012.