"Taking out the future's garbage." That's how Joe describes his job executing people who are sent back from the future by the mob to be disposed of "cleanly."
It's 2044, and Joe is what's known as a looper. Time travel hasn't yet been invented, he tells us. But 30 years in the future, it will be. Never mind that the technology is immediately banned, crime cartels still clandestinely use it to zap unfortunates back to Joe's time to be executed there, as their bodies are impossible to dispose of in 2074.
Back in Joe's time, though, it's easy. He waits in a field with his pocket watch, a gun and a tarp. At the appointed moment, a hooded victim appears on his knees before him, and Joe pulls the trigger. Afterward, he claims his silver ingot prize, which is always attached to the victim's back, and incinerates the corpse.
It's a simple—if violent—life, one that allows Joe and his looper cronies to live like kings. As poverty, squalor and violence stalk the streets, loopers live it up with drugs, fast cars and prostitutes.
When the powers that be decide a looper's career is through, they send one last victim back for execution: the older version of the looper himself. "Closing the loop," it's euphemistically called. Sometimes, however, loopers can't bring themselves to kill their future selves. And every so often, those future selves aren't ready to be executed just yet either.
That's definitely the case with the older version of Joe. It took him 30 years after being a looper, we learn, to leave all of his violent ways behind. Thirty years to find a woman who loved him, someone whose love finally brought him peace and happiness.
When the past catches up with Joe in the future—or maybe it's the future catching up with his past—his beloved wife winds up dead and he stares down the barrel of his younger self's gun. But Joe's learned a trick or two in those dark, dark years—like turning his ingot-encrusted back toward that gun and escaping his judgment.
An "open loop," it's called.
Joe's determined to track down his older self—to close the loop and get back in the good graces of his ruthless handler, a mob boss named Abe. But Old Joe's got a bigger mission than just survival. If he can track down and kill the boy who will become the brutal crime lord who kills his wife 30 years in the future, perhaps he can rewrite history and rescue his beloved from a violent death.
But what if Joe makes different choices than Old Joe did? What if he falls in love with a tough farmer named Sara instead of a woman in Asia? And what if Sara's son, Cid, might be the boy whose telekinetic powers will one day make him the very kingpin Old Joe is hunting today?
Joe's present and his future—not to mention Sara's and Cid's—all hang on the answers to these mind-bending questions.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Post-looper, Joe makes it a decade on the silver he earned. And when the money runs out, he returns to the life of a paid assassin—this time a more traditional one. Amid that violence, Old Joe tells Joe, he meets a woman who coaxes him out of a never-ending cycle of drugs and violence, someone who helps him see how stunted and immature he is.
Back in good ol' 2044, Joe's already begun to get an inkling of that kind of experience himself, after meeting Sara. Sara, it turns out, was a wild young woman who got pregnant with Cid, then abandoned him for her sister to raise. Her sister was then murdered, an act of violence Cid witnessed, and an act that snapped Sara out of her self-absorption. She determined to raise Cid as well as she could, a task that includes helping him learn to control his superhero-like telekinetic powers.
Even as Joe makes plans to kill Old Joe, he takes on a father-like role in Cid's life—resulting in an inevitable showdown with his older self. Joe rejects Old Joe's insistence that the child has to die, choosing to believe instead that another, more positive outcome for Cid is possible.
In the future, we learn, a small percentage of humans have telekinetic abilities. (They're deemed mutations, not supernatural attributes.) A preacher can be heard warning people about the reality of hell.
Abe's base of operations is a combination strip club/bordello. After women dance, clients take them to private rooms where they also function as prostitutes. A shot of dancers coming offstage includes a topless woman. Other women wear very revealing outfits.
Joe has a relationship with one of the dancers, a woman named Suzie, but must still pay Abe for her "services." At one point he wants to spend time with her, but she says another client has purchased her time for the night. As a reward for turning in open looper and friend Seth, Abe gives Joe an hour with Suzie "on the house." Lingering camera shots show her breasts while she's wearing only skimpy panties. Joe isn't interested in sex, though; he's too distraught about having betrayed his friend.
Sara alludes to having led a wild life, the consequences of which included her unintended pregnancy. She eventually invites Joe to spend the night. They kiss passionately, with Joe on top of her.
Joe is an assassin. And the entire premise of Looper is predicated upon the death that he deals. We repeatedly see him waiting for a new victim to arrive. Each time, he coolly unloads his shotgun-like blunderbuss into the hooded figure, resulting in blood spray and a massive chest wound. The bodies he bundles into a factory furnace. One montage includes bloody images of him executing victim after victim. Another reveals his bloody post-looper career as an assassin.
Multiple shoot-outs involve Joe, Old Joe and a group of Abe's thugs who are pursuing both of them. Eventually, Old Joe gets captured. But he turns the table on his captors, shooting and killing virtually everyone in Abe's HQ, perhaps 15 to 20 men (including a group of five or six that's blown up by a grenade). Fistfights with savage punches and kicks get tossed into the mix as well, including a couple of scrapes between Joe and Old Joe.
In addition to that violence, several particularly wince-inducing scenes deserve specific note: Joe shoves a guy into a hole in his apartment floor, then rams a heavy wooden lid down on his fingers. Abe brutally takes a mallet to the same character's already wounded hand as punishment for his ineptitude. Sara shoots Joe with a shotgun which, it turns out, is loaded with rock salt that "merely" opens up numerous wounds in his chest and torso (which she later treats). Cid uses his telekinetic power to suspend an enemy in the air and then essentially eviscerate him; a slow-motion camera shot shows an explosion of the man's torso in both directions, and Cid is later covered in blood. A violent car accident is also the result of Cid's powers. Joe takes a nasty fall from several stories up and lands on a car hood.
A man turns a gun on himself, blasting a hole in his chest. Old Joe tracks down a young boy he think might grow up to be the crime lord, and we watch as he levels the pistol at the youngster. (We hear the blast.) Afterward, Old Joe breaks down and sobs, obviously feeling guilty. But it's not enough to stop him, because he goes after two other boys as well. (Neither are killed.)
When a looper isn't able to kill the older version of himself, he's captured and tortured—resulting in his older version instantly sustaining those injuries. In one case that we see, a man's fingers begin disappearing. Then his nose, then both his feet (resulting in a car crash). He's finally shot and killed, and in the background we see the bloody table on which those ghastly amputations were performed.
Crude or Profane Language
About 25 f-words (two paired with "mother") and 20 s-words. God's name is misused at least a dozen times, and most (about 10) of those exclamations are mangled up with "d‑‑n." Jesus' name is abused eight or nine times. We hear a handful of uses each of "a‑‑" "a‑‑hole" and "h‑‑‑." Sara calls Joe a "p‑‑‑y." A woman flips an obscene hand gesture at Old Joe.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Joe is addicted to an unnamed drug in a liquid form that can be either injected or taken via eyedrops. We see him put drops in his eyes daily; a montage includes images of syringes. Joe talks about how his mother was a drug addict who sold him to a "panhandle gang" for drug money.
Alcohol is heavily consumed at the strip club. Some folks are seen drinking after having taken the drug. Several characters smoke. We see one close-up shot of a hand-rolled cigarette.
Other Negative Elements
Joe and Old Joe have some massive character issues. Joe sells out his friend Seth because he doesn't want to lose the silver he's been accumulating, a self-serving choice that results in Seth being tortured and killed. Similarly, as noted, Old Joe is so committed to saving his wife that he's willing to kill young boys back in 2044 to accomplish that end.
Looper is a high-concept thriller that feels like the long lost cinematic brother of Christopher Nolan's mind-bending movies Memento and Inception. Like those two brain twizzlers, Looper's multiple, interconnected, chronology-reliant narratives depend upon an intricate set of rules and demand that viewers pay close attention.
They also demand that we loosen our grip on certain moral convictions.
Here's the biggest one: Ultimately, Old Joe can only be stopped from killing Cid in one way, with Joe taking his own life. In the logic of the movie, any physical harm done to the younger version of someone instantly ripples forward through time to affect the older one, even if one of them has time traveled into the same timeframe. So Joe puts a gun to his chest and pulls the trigger, killing himself … and himself.
Insofar as Joe is stopping Old Joe from killing Cid, it's a heroic and selfless act, and it's deemed exactly that within the context of this tortured time-twist of a story. Insofar as Joe is killing himself, though, it's still suicide. And the two diametrically opposed acts cannot be untangled onscreen.
In significant ways, too, Looper amps up not only the intellectual quotient, but the visceral one as well. An angry child obliterates an enemy. A desperate father shoots a child. A man tries to flee but can't because his appendages start disappearing. And then there are all those executions, as we repeatedly watch Joe shoot defenseless, hooded victims without a shred of remorse. Just taking out the garbage, he says.
Then, as grimy as that is grim, we see two scenes picturing topless women as they go about their erotic dancing and prostitution "duties." Most scenes also include harsh profanity.
But by the time the credits roll, audiences are challenged to believe that even hardened men can change and that the future is not set in stone. Thus, a dark movie that has been almost completely devoid of hope ends on something like a hopeful—(even if tragically somber) note.
It's too little too late—a concept Joe knows only too well.