Joseph Gordon-Levitt Has Chosen His Best Movie And You Can Stream It On Netflix Right Now

By Nathan Kamal | 1 month ago

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

There are actors in the world who say that cannot watch their own performances out of self-consciousness or self-criticism, like Tom Hanks or Javier Bardem. It is no doubt extremely difficult to watch yourself from the outside pretending to be someone else and not get pretty weirded out. But when you are watching yourself from the outside pretending to be someone else who is also in the movie pretending to be someone else, it must get especially discomforting. Except in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s case, because he says his best and favorite role is in director Rian Johnson’s 2012 science fiction film Looper, in which he and legendary actor Bruce Willis play two different versions of the same character. It is streaming on Netflix right now, and here’s what Joseph Gordon-Levitt recently said of it in an interview with Vanity Fair

One of my marks of success as an actor, for myself, is do I seem different on screen from myself? It’s probably why Looper is my favorite performance of mine because it’s the most different. Now granted, I sort of cheated with the prosthetics, I kind of look different. But I get that thrill the most of, ‘Wow, it’s really somebody else, it’s not me.’ I did a lot of work to try and do my version that wasn’t an imitation of Bruce Willis, but had sort of the spirit of Bruce Willis. If I had to pick a favorite, acting wise, this is up there for me.

Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play different versions of the same character in the time-travel thriller Looper.

From a story standpoint, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis are able to be the same character for that most eternal and complicated of science fiction gambits: time travel. Looper takes place in a near-future in which it is explained, time travel has not yet been invented. However, because of the very nature of time travel itself, since it does eventually get invented, it is still present as an endpoint of time displacement. In this case, the ability to traverse the gulfs of time seems primarily of use to mobsters in the future, who are unable to dispose of bodies in their own time due to advanced tracking technology. So, they send these luckless souls backwards in time, where they are immediately executed by waiting hitmen called “loopers.” However, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s expository narration explains, if one of these loopers manages to live till the time period in which time travel becomes possible and could theoretically incriminate their future, now present accomplices, they themselves are sent back in time, bound and gagged, to be killed by the younger version of themselves. That’s the price they pay for riches and immunity in the present. It’s called “closing the loop.”

Most of this is presented in as dry a fashion as possible in the first fifteen minutes of the film. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Young Joe, while Bruce Willis is Old Joe. When Old Joe reappears in the past, not bound and gagged, he manages to escape from execution and the actual plot is underway. Basically, Old Joe has managed to get himself sent back in time in order to try to kill the younger version of a future mob boss called The Rainmaker; almost as an aside, it is mentioned that humans have begun to develop telekinetic abilities that basically qualify in terms of ability as a party trick. Apparently, The Rainmaker as an adult is a step forward in psychic human evolution, and powerful enough to have utterly taken control of all criminal activity in the future. 

In his career as a director, Rian Johnson has shown he loves nothing more than examining and subverting the tropes and structure of genre. In The Last Jedi, he went against every expectation of Star Wars fandom and turned Luke Skywalker into a bitter old hermit who refuses the call to action and the new ultimate evil into an easily disposed-of prop. In Knives Out, he turned the murder mystery inside out and revealed what had happened almost immediately, making the tension entirely on the dunnit rather than the who. And in Looper, he makes time travel dull and rote, easily explained. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Young Joe is barely a hitman; rather than stylish, exciting assassinations, he waits in a field with a shotgun for a helpless target. Even the slick, slightly futuristic style he and the other loopers is an unimaginative imitation of what they’ve seen in movies, as their weary, jaded handler Abe (a heavily bearded Jeff Daniels) points out. As a man sent from the future to monitor the past, all of this is pointless. It’s already happened, so what does it matter?

joseph gordon-levitt

It’s an intriguing take on a picked-over genre, but the real thrill of the movie is the interplay between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis. To play Young Joe, Gordon-Levitt was fitted with prosthetics custom-made by Academy Award-winning Japanese-American designer Kazu Hiro (also known as Kazuhiro Tsuji); they give him an uncanny valley look, close enough to Willis to be noticeable, but also not quite there. It is fitting to the themes of Looper, in which the interactions between the two constantly change the pair, with both men constantly not quite in sync between who they are and who they will be. As Young Joe tries to track down Old Joe, Old Joe gains dim memories of what his past self is doing; after all, it’s himself in the past. And as Young Joe is hurt, it becomes an old nagging injury to slow down Old Joe. Out of gruesome necessity, the Young Joe can send messages to his older self by carving words into his flesh, which become written scars in the future. 


With the recent, tragic retirement of Bruce Willis, Looper will undoubtedly stand as one of the very finest latter-day films of his long and distinguished career. And for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, it was his great opportunity to finally see himself onscreen as someone else.