Rian Johnson’s Looper is a good film, with touches of brilliance, but equally with a central dubious morality and the plot weaknesses inherent in any film that uses time travel as a central plot structure. The way that these central problems are addressed by Johnson, and how they interact with one another are essential to elevate Looper above mere sci-fi entertainment, in which it comfortably sits, towards a film worthy of more attention and critical debate.
This essay contains plot spoilers including the film’s ending, so if you haven’t seen it and want to, you have been warned.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as everyman Joe, a ‘looper’, in 2044, employed by gangsters in the future to kill people they send back in time, and dispose of their bodies in the past. In 2074, the gangs are taken over by a mysterious man known as ‘The Rainmaker’, who decides to close the ‘loops’, by sending back the older loopers to be killed by their younger selves. When a looper closes his loop, he knows from that point on that he has thirty years left to live. When Joe finds he is faced with his older self (played by Bruce Willis), he hesitates and allows Old Joe to escape. As the gangsters try to track down and kill both Joe’s, Old Joe sets off to find the child who will one day grow into ‘The Rainmaker’ and eliminate him in the present to change the future, a future in which his beloved wife was murdered during his capture. He knows the Rainmaker to be one of three boys born on the same day in the same hospital, and so to be sure he kills the Rainmaker, he must kill all three children. Young Joe, meanwhile, sets out to kill Old Joe (his older self) in order to protect his own life in the present. To track Old Joe down he waits at the farmhouse of Sara, whose son is one of the potential child Rainmakers.
In setting two versions of the same person against each other, Johnson deliberately clouds who is the hero and who is the villain. Who should we have sympathy with, or empathy for? Should we treat both Joe’s as the same person? These questions are made more difficult because it is difficult to admire, or like, Joe in either guise.
In the 2044 opening act we are introduced to Joe and his looper lifestyle. Addicted to eye-dropping drugs, working as a hired killer to fund a privileged lifestyle, Joe is impervious to the poverty and desolation that has crippled America. No matter how stylish Joseph Gordon-Levitt looks in his sharp suits and classic sports car, he is already an atypical film hero compared to most mainstream films. When Seth (Paul Dano), a friend and fellow looper fails to kill his future self, he turns to Joe, arriving at Joe’s apartment seeking help and sanctuary. Faced with the choice of helping Seth or keeping the money he has been hoarding to pay his way out of being a looper, Joe sacrifices his friend, sentencing him to certain death at the hands of the mob. A betrayal of this kind, putting money over loyalty and friendship – no matter how worthless and corrupted that friend may be – is an act associated not with the hero in traditional storytelling, but with the villain. Johnson is forewarning us strongly that Joe may not be a central character we will enjoy spending that much time with.
Once Joe is confronted with his future self, and we meet the Bruce Willis-Joe, we are given a montage showing us how Gordon-Levitt-Joe became Old Joe(Incidentally, Gordon-Levitt’s digitally enhanced performance mimicking a younger Willis is quite brilliant). In this we see Joe leaving America and establishing a life of crime in the gang world of China. Joe spends around 25 years addicted to drugs, committing crime, including the implication of violence and murder. Redemption comes in the shape of a wife and true love, withdrawal from drugs and retirement to a peaceful, clean life. The life of crime, where crime pays and no punishment is forthcoming highlights that Joe, in the present and the future, is someone who should not be treated as a hero. But it his story that lies at the centre of the narrative in Looper. And then the fateful day arrives when the Rainmaker’s soldiers catch up with him and murder his wife in the process of capturing him.
Establishing that Joe is a man with a dark, corrupt and guilty past (or present) goes only some way to prepare the viewer for what happens next. Old Joe, having saved the life of his younger self, sets out alone to track down the potential Rainmaker child. He has the addresses of the three potential Rainmakers and arrives at the first address, armed with a shotgun. What follows is surely one of the most controversial, and genre-defying moments in mainstream cinema in this, or any, year. That not much seems to have been made of it amongst critics, or in reviews, poses questions about society, culture and the acceptance of violence in cinema today. This lack of reaction can partly be attributed to the tactful, discreet way that Johnson films the scene, and the way it is edited in order to cut out the actual act of violence itself, but the implication and aftermath is clear.
Old Joe approaches the small boy outside his house, the boy turns to look at Joe approaching. Joe pulls out a shotgun and points it directly at the boy. The shot holds for a moment, stillness and in slow motion. Then cut to Joe walking away and then scenes of his remorse and guilt as Joe stands weeping. No blood, no violence is seen onscreen, but, as confirmed later by other characters in dialogue, Joe has gunned down at point-blank range an innocent, defenceless child. Can this be an act that can be forgiven at any time, and for any motive? And can it be forgiven as an act by the nominal (anti)’hero’ at the centre of Looper?
Part of the presentation of Old Joe as Looper’s hero comes form the casting of Bruce Willis in the role. Unlike Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the younger role, Willis has a career spanning thirty years in which, almost without fail, he has portrayed the good guy, the dependable, everyday hero. We are conditioned to the ‘Bruce Willis’ persona through his portrayal of John McClane in the Die Hard franchise and in films like Armageddon, RED, 16 Blocks, The Fifth Element and The Last Boy Scout. Even when Willis steps out of the limited range of action hero and, to his credit, takes on grittier, more challenging roles such as Pulp Fiction, Sin City or 12 Monkeys, he is invariably on the side of good. At the same time as Looper was in the multiplexes in Britain, Willis could be seen in Simon West’s The Expendables 2 alongside the other 19080’s action heroes Stallone and Schwarzenegger. It seems unfair that Willis is grouped with these two, although through their Planet Hollywood venture and The Expendables, he seems happy with the association. Unfair as throughout his career Willis has shown the ability and desire to do more than either of his action friends. He has a greater range that can handle comedy (the recent Moonrise Kingdom, Death Becomes Her) and drama (The Sixth Sense) as well as a machine gun. Think of Sly or Arnie trying to emulate Willis in any of these films. That isn’t to say Willis hasn’t had his share of disasters – Cop Out, The Whole Ten Yards or Bonfire Of The Vanities to name just a few – but at least he gets marks for trying.
In Looper, Willis gets to display his tried and trusted action ability. One scene, where he breaks out from the gangsters headquarters by killing a whole battalion of mobsters, machine guns blazing, only works because this is Bruce Willis doing it. It is enjoyable nonsense, encouraging the audience to have a knowing laugh at Bruce Willis doing what he does best. Had the Joseph Gordon-Levitt Joe been in this scene, it would have lacked that action star persona and become fatally ridiculous. In earlier scenes, Willis has already twice outshone Gordon-Levitt in action fights, highlighting his prominence as the action star. The only way Gordon-Levitt-Joe can outdo Willis-Joe in the end is by using his brain and taking his own life, thereby eliminating Old Joe. In a fight scene together, there can only be one winner here.
The confusion for the audience with Bruce Willis in Looper then stems not from any lack of heroic action, or from a dubious morality that we have seen Willis attempt to explore in previous roles. It stems from the audience being initially being asked to sympathise with Old Joe, to identify with the Bruce Willis persona, but then witnessing him perpetrating the murder of an innocent child, leaving the audience seriously conflicted, as the innate, long-established likeability of Bruce Willis is called into question.
If we cannot side with either Joe – neither the selfish, money-driven, disloyal, drug-addicted murderer in the present nor the child murdering older version – who then should demand our sympathy in Looper? Unusually for a mainstream science-fiction action film, the role could be filmed by the female lead, Sara, played by Emily Blunt, the protective mother of Cid (Pierce Gagnon), the boy who will eventually become the Rainmaker. As Young Joe waits at her farmhouse, awaiting the showdown with Old Joe, Sara tries to protect her child and property. On first appearances Sara fills the void of noble, heroic character left by the compromised Joes. As we learn more about her, and her knowledge of her son’s dangerous, murderous telekinetic powers (he has already killed, though accidentally, Sara’s sister and brother-in-law whom initially cared for him), again our sympathies are compromised. Sara abandoned Cid when he was first-born, and now refuses to leave him, naively believing she can teach him to harness his telekinetic powers. This vision of motherly nurturing is what Young Joe ultimately envisions, and in so doing decides to alter the course of the future by killing himself in order to stop his older self killing the young Cid. This seems an overly optimistic ending by both Young Joe and Sara, as we have already seen Cid lose control of his telekinetic power to devastating result. Will he be changed just by not being abandoned by his mother? A mother who already keeps a metal safe in her bedroom to which she retreats when Cid has a telekinetic episode. It puts an awful lot of faith in the nurture over nature argument.
The other troublesome side to the ending of Looper are the flaws found in any film dealing with time travel as a major plot structure. It also posits one way in which Old Joe, and the Bruce Willis persona, can be forgiven for his seemingly unforgivable sin. As Old Joe stands ready to kill Cid, another child, though not an innocent one this time, Young Joe shoots himself, causing Old Joe to disappear, having never existed beyond this point in history. If Joe never exists beyond this point in time then it negates the entire ‘child murder’ conundrum, because Old Joe never existed in order to commit the terrible act.
Except, of course, by taking this action, Looper begins to disappear into its’ own black hole of time travel paradoxes. If Joe kills himself, then he never became his older self, never had a murdered wife to avenge, was never sent back in time and never threatened to kill the Rainmaker. But if he never did any of this, then Joe would never have killed himself in the first place, and would never have faced his older self and been supposed to kill him. Joe would never have met Sara or the Rainmaker, so one assumes the Rainmaker would grow up as before… and so on. In a central scene where Old and Young Joe get to talk, Old Joe dismisses Young Joe’s questions about time travel, telling him, and the audience, not to think too much about the paradoxes of time travel. It makes his head hurt. It’s a funny, post-modern, knowing joke by Johnson, recognising that if you pick away at Looper, and all previous time travel films (see Back To The Future, Terminator) the plot unravels alarmingly quickly. But should a director, and writer, be forgiven for plot inconsistencies just because he flags up that he is aware of them? Is this scene a touch of self-referential class, or laziness? It’s tempting to let Johnson away with the loopholes because the rest of the film works so well, and while you’re watching Looper you are kept moving along at enough of a pace to skip over the plot holes (and if Johnson spent too long dealing with the ramifications of time travel, then one suspects Looper would never have been made). Once the end credits roll however, Johnson definitely doesn’t want his audience to think about the plot too much. (On a side note can Johnson be forgiven for including flying motorbikes in his vision of the future? From Metropolis to Star Trek to Back To The Future to Bladerunner flying private transport appears, and yet it seems clear that this will never come to pass, especially as the population can barely be trusted with earthbound transport!).
Given that the plot of Looper at least poses doubt if not unravels completely, can we the use the disappearance of Old Joe as a reason to forgive his earlier crime? For me, it seems a bit too much of a leap to use this a s a justifiable excuse to accept a repentant Young Joe as our saviour. his act of redemption – sacrificing himself – comes too late. If you accept Looper’s linear timeline, then Joe has already gone on to live thirty years of murder, crime, selfishness before undoing it all.
What is easier to forgive is the fact that Rian Johnson was bold and brave enough to present us with a Bruce Willis character who is not a clean-cut, clear-cut hero, but is complex, torn between love, duty, crime and morality. And credit too for Willis for taking on a role that includes such a scene as killing a child. There are many stars in Hollywood who would balk at any role featuring such a scene. The morality at the heart of Looper and the duality in pitting two versions of the same character against one another help elevate the film above a mere sci-fi action film into that rare thing – an entertaining American mainstream film that also encourages its’ audience to think.
Film Rating: 4 out of 5.