A high school set neo-noir, a mercurial love story featuring a globe-spanning con and now Rian Johnson takes on a time-worn sci-fi concept and a fresh, dazzling tale emerges. Looper is a classic piece of sci-fi cinema, riddled with brilliant ideas, a complex and satisfying narrative and, most importantly, a heartbeat.

Johnson introduces us to the concept of Loopers, hired guns who dispatch victims sent back from a future where time-travel is both possible and illegal, within the first few minutes. A weary voiceover and a short, sharp scene of violence is all we need to buy into the idea. Keeping the future at bay is only the beginning of the refreshing determination with which the film refuses to be dragged down and within twenty minutes we’re into the heart of the film.

Chasing down his own future self Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s looper uncovers a mystery which may save his life and thousands of others. It’s futile to get into the plot in any more detail, the time-travel elements make sense (and importantly fail to cloud the emotional landscape as Johnson allows them to simply be) and the narrative is propelled through the cliché strewn sci-fi minefield with some dizzying editing and some wonderful character moments.

Johnson’s skill in engaging an audience through his characters’ language and his choice of framing has never been better. Jeff Daniels, as a Hefner-esque future crime boss, has some very funny lines and the clichés of interrogation and menace are trounced with some very smart dialogue and the effect is underscored the moment Johnson moves in for the kill with a close up. Gordon-Levitt’s dazzling drug high is a masterpiece of
montage and though he’s not subtle Johnson’s understanding of sound and silence had never been put to such good use.

There are moments of comedy in the most violent bloodbaths, sparks of terror in the safety of the wide open midday sun-strewn plains; the two halves of the film take us from the clogged neon charged arteries of a future city to a lone farmhouse, home to a mother and a child, and both feel dangerous and uncertain. Johnson’s infrequent movements through time uncover the character’s motives and imbue our understanding of what is at stake. At no time do we feel lost.

While the film could have failed to free itself from the confines of the time-travel genre Johnson’s ideas (the gruesome recovery process of an unclosed loop, thirty years of life conveyed in a short series of jumps) fuel the film while his fine tuned pacing and unwavering hold on the emotional narrative at play results on a gripping, heartfelt film whose reach is far beyond many of the films it shares a summer with.

The introduction of Emily Blunt’s character halfway through the film makes a jarring shift in tone,however when the seeds of the narrative’s resolution begin to take root it is this narrowing of the film’s scope that allows the film to pay off in a brilliant and wholly satisfaying manner. Despite the thousand of future lives at stake, and the enigma of the ten percent of the population’s telekinetic power seemingly relegated to a neat detail to set the scene, in the end everything reveals its true nature in the narrative. And it all comes down to one man and a gun.

If Brick marked the cocksure debut of a fine cinematic talent, and The Brothers Bloom was a beautiful yet misunderstood ‘difficult’ second film, Looper is that rare achievement of being a genre film which illuminates the possibility of that genre. Like Twelve Monkeys, a film which has the philosophical and emotional weight Looper aims for, this film builds a terrifying vision of the future, and seduces us into believing that what we do matters, that fate and consequence are lines which can be re-drawn. Until the fate of our characters is sealed,  until the loop closes with the opening and closing of a pocketwatch, until the final frame we believe this to be the case. That is the film’s triumph. That we believe.