Let me see if I can explain this.
(for the full inquiry, click here)
The simple answer is: the scene where Young Joe closes his loop (kills Willis) is a flashback. If this clarifies everything for you, you don't have to read on.
If you're still confused. I may confuse you more. But you'll get it, eventually.
Here we go.
It's probably dumb to say this but...keep in mind Looper is a time travel movie.
If we're looking at the timeline of events, this is what happens. Chronologically.
1. the world doesn't have time travel until 2074. Which means there was a point in time where Young Joe WAS NOT a Looper, since Loopers did not exist because there was no time travel so no one to kill from the future.
2. when we hit 2074, time travel suddenly exists. The mob sends Abe back in time to start up the Loopers.
3. when Abe is back in 2044, he recruits Young Joe to become a Looper. Joe works, "loves" Suzie, is sad, a druggie, and saves his money, betrays Seth, feels guilty, etc.
4. Joe closes his loop.
5. Joe moves to Shanghai with all his money. He spends all his money, joins some Shanghai mafia, becomes Bruce Willis, does stupid stuff, meets girl.
6. After meeting girl, Joe falls in love, marries girl, gets clean, begins a happy life.
7. The Rainmaker is taking over the American mob and is getting rid of Loopers, closing all loops. He has his men find Joe. They kill Joe's wife, take Joe to wherever the time travel takes place.
8. Joe frees himself and kills his captors. He has the information on how to find The Rainmaker, so he goes back in time to find and kill The Rainmaker in order to prevent his wife's death.
9. Old Joe appears in the field, not on time, without a sack over his head, and Young Joe hesitates, fires late, Old Joe turns, takes the shot in the back, the gold strapped there saves him, and Old Joe throws a gold bar at Young Joe then, taking advantage of a shocked Young Joe, punches him in the face. Old Joe escapes.
10. The rest of the movie happens.
I'm going to go over all of this again.
We see Old Joe appear in 2044 three times.
The first time is the time he escapes.
The second time is the time where Young Joe shoots and kills him.
The third time is the time he escapes.
The first and third time are actually one-and-the-same. The moment is repeated. It doesn't actually happen twice. Rian Johnson is just showing it to us twice.
When we see Old Joe die: this is the beginning of a flashback.
Think about when we see this scene (Old Joe dying). Young Joe is trying to escape from his apartment in the middle of a fire fight with a Gat Man who is trying to capture Joe because Joe has failed to close his loop and report to Abe (same thing that happened to Seth (that was foreshadowing! gasp!)). Joe has just slipped from the ladder of the fire escape and is falling. Then we're suddenly in the field we were in a few minutes before, where Young Joe's looping takes place. Joe closes his loop, moves to Shanghai. Marries, wife is killed, Old Joe is captured, escapes, goes back in time. This is why we see Old Joe Escaping for the second time. We're still in a flashback. We eventually catch up to Young Joe falling off the balcony.
The narrative actually takes place over three Loops in time.
The First Loop was everything that happened pre-time travel, until 2074 when time travel was invented.
The Second Loop begins when Abe goes back in time. This is the series of events we watch where Young Joe CLOSES HIS LOOP.
The Third Loop begins when Old Joe goes back in time and isn't killed.
In terms of the L2 (Loop 2) and L3, I think all the events leading up to Old Joe's appearances in the field are the same. Like...Joe has a crush on Suzie (why Old Joe recognizes her when he's going to kill her kid), Joe betrays Seth (I believe Old Joe refers to this during the diner conversation, right?), Joe does drugs, Joe saves his money in a floor vault.
What I can't figure out is how the circumstances under which Old Joe gets sent back in time change. So. In L2, Joe closes his loop. Old Joe shows up in the field, on time, sack over his head, doesn't react: dies. WHO SENT THAT OLD JOE BACK? This is where the time travel stuff starts to confuse me.
There's an obvious difference between the two times Old Joe is sent from the future to 2044. The first time he is hooded. The second time he is not. We see how he comes back the second time: he has murdered his captors and goes back willingly (hence no hood). We have no idea what happened the first time Old Joe went back. We can assume, because Old Joe is hooded, that he did not escape his captors.
This means the future is changed. But by what?
Was the first Old Joe that was sent back in time married to a Shanghai woman? Was he even in Shanghai? Was this the L1 Joe? So the Joe that was never a Looper?
So then L2 Joe is sent back, and that's the Old Joe who has murdered his captors and is not hooded.
There is no L3 Joe because...well...L3 Joe has no future.
I guess this makes sense. In L1, The Rainmaker didn't exist. Then Abe goes back and L2 starts, and The Rainmaker is born. When L2 reaches 2074, things are different than they were in L1. Why? Because the people who weren't Loopers in L1 were Loopers in L2, so their entire lives were different, which means their futures are entirely different. And because the Loopers had different lives they interacted with different people in L2 than they did in L1. For example: The Rainmaker didn't exist in L1, exists in L2, a direct result of Abe going back and starting the Loopers. So this explains why the circumstances for Old Joe from L1 being sent back to 2044 are different than the circumstances surrounding Old Joe from L2 being sent back to 2044. And L3 will be different from L2 because of the events that go on in the movie.
Okay. So a lot of this last bit is probably extraneous (I know, we can argue my entire analysis is extraneous, sigh). But. Whatever. Hopefully it helps make more sense about what exactly is going on in this movie.