Looper is writer/director Rian Johnson’s third film and his second teaming with actor Joseph-Gordon Levitt. It might also be his most successful. Johnson is a genre director, or at the very least, a student of genre, and tries his best to recreate it with his own stamp. Brick (2005) was film noir set in high school, The Brother’s Bloom (2008) a con man film. Looper is science fiction but doesn’t waste too much time with science.
Looper’s present time is 2044. Thirty years in the future, time travel will be invented and then immediately outlawed. Only a crime syndicate has access to a time machine, and they use it for their dirty work. If a person in the future needs to be taken out, they are sent back to 2044, where they are killed and disposed of by a Looper. There is no trace of the killing in the future, and if the body were ever to be found in the past, then it would not yet exist. One of time travels most interesting conundrums, but smartly side-stepped by Johnson in lieu of a character and plot. It is interesting discussing time travel in films because we use words like future and past. In film, all moments are present moments because they are unfolding in front of our eyes. Making a film about time travel raises all sorts of problems, as does writing about a film about time travel. Thankfully, Johnson does not dwell on the actual science and theory of time travel and simply lets it exist. Much like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris from last year, time travel is the how not the what that concerns the plot.
Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Joe, a Looper in 2044. He is a kid, only concerned with himself and the present. He carries out his job with efficiency but knows that one day this will all end. All the Loopers live for the moment and seem to be addicted to some drug that is administered to the eyes. It is unclear what this drug does specifically, but I would wager that it does what every other drug does and makes you feel good. Loopers are troubled kids (and there seems to be a lot of them in the future) who are taken in by the syndicate, trained, paid, and given an identity. There is a scene where Joe and another Looper, Kid Blue (Noah Segan), discuss the merits of this gun over that. This scene is not only reminiscent of Cherry and Matt in Red River (1948), it continues the long tradition of weapons as phallus. A man is only as good as long as his gun shoots straight and clean.
One morning Joe shows up to the usual spot in the Kansas cane fields where his targets appear for dispatch. The target is late. The target has never been late. Then the target appears. It is future Joe from 2074. We know it’s future Joe because it’s Bruce Willis, and we are not stupid. Joe knows that it’s his future self because he knew this day would come. When Loopers are no longer deemed useful, they are sent back in time to be killed and disposed of by their past self. This is called “closing the loop.” Joe hesitates, and Old Joe is prepared and gets the better of Joe and escapes.
Old Joe has traveled back in time because, in 2074, a ruthless warlord known as ‘The Rainmaker’ is closing everyone’s loop as well as destroying anyone in his path. Old Joe loses his wife and his life. If he travels back in time to when The Rainmaker was only a child, he might be able to stop him from becoming the monster he will grow up to be. If it was possible to travel back in time, would you kill Hitler before Hitler became Hitler? This is the kind of philosophical quandary college students discuss after one too many beers at two o’clock in the morning. Johnson side-steps this oversimplification of morality to investigate the cycle of violence that seems to not only entrap the characters but man in general. At this point, Johnson has enough material to build an entire film. Joe could chase Old Joe for the rest of the film; youthful energy meets world-wise experience. It could even delve deeper into the logistics of time travel, but Johnson doesn’t seem concerned with these ideas. Instead, he has something else he wants to get at, a question of morality. To go into it, I will spoil the rest of the film, so proceed with caution.
Johnson, much like John Ford and Anthony Mann before him, is critical of violence while employing it. Consider the depiction of violence in two scenes: Old Joe storming headquarters and Old Joe killing the potential Rainmaker. In the first scene, Bruce Willis does what Bruce Willis does best and kills a lot of guys. The camera moves are precise; the editing is energetic. Willis mugs in close-up loads up with two guns and dismantles the place from bottom to top. The violence is brutal, and the body count is high. Willis emerges unscathed, his shirt soaked in his victim’s blood. Jeff Daniels watches on monitors as Old Joe systematically dismantles his entire army of Loopers. The gunshots are deafening, and the music is blasting. They are the bad guys; they deserve it.
Now the scene in which Old Joe shoots the child. He has enough information to know that one of three kids in this city will grow up and become The Rainmaker. Old Joe is determined to save his wife and future by taking the kid out before he can become the monster that he is. Old Joe approaches the first of three boys silently. The boy senses the presence of another. He turns and sees Old Joe standing at the entrance of the patio, framed by the vine-covered arch. Old Joe raises his gun, close-up on the gun, BANG! Old Joe staggers back out into the street, crippled with pain and guilt. The child he shot would not grow up to be The Rainmaker, and he has murdered a child in cold blood. He pauses and leans up against an overpass, and cries. He throws-up. The camera keeps its distance. It wants no part in sympathizing with a child killer.
Joe sacrifices himself because he has a moment of clarity where he can see the future. Old Joe kills Sara, Cid gets away, Cid grows up alone and angry, uses that anger and his power to make himself into something monstrous. Old Joe, in essence, traveled back in time not to prevent the future from happening but to ensure that it played out the way it already has. At this point, the film isn’t so much about time travel as it is about prophecy fulfillment. At the beginning of Macbeth, the witches foretell Macbeth’s future and downfall. He laughs at them but can’t stop himself from recreating the prophecy. Either Shakespeare wrote the first story about time travel, or Looper really is a film about how violence begets violence. To stop violence, it takes more than just killing a bad person. Killing creates nothing; it destroys everything. The 2003 film, Amores Perros by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, connects three sets of characters through a series of negative events and a very special dog. The dog brings death to people around him, but it is through no fault of his own; he is merely acting according to his nature. As such, the sins of one person are carried to the next, as is the punishment. To continue the cycle is easy, but one character decides to act against his instincts, shows compassion and forgiveness, and breaks the cycle. In Looper, Joe realizes that he can stop the cycle by removing himself from it. The child that will grow up to be The Rainmaker is named Cid (Pierce Gagnon in a phenomenal performance) and is living on a farm in the middle of Kansas with his guardian, Sara (Emily Blunt). Both Cid and Sara have a secret, they have telekinetic abilities, but Cid’s are much more developed and lethal. Joe stumbles across them by accident, and Old Joe methodically makes his way to the farm in search of the child. It is time for a good old-fashioned showdown, and Looper doesn’t disappoint. Old Joe is a man possessed, one who cannot listen to reason and cannot be stopped. Joe isn’t equipped or developed enough as a person to stop someone much smarter than him. Then it occurs to him that he can stop his future self by stopping himself in the present. He turns the gun on himself and saves the day.
Looper is far from perfect, and not everything works. Gordon-Levitt’s prosthetic can sometimes look very fabricated and, well, prosthetic Paul Dano’s character and performance seem to be out of place, as he does in most films he’s in. The voice-over sounds nice and has a decent hard-boiled edge to it, but mostly provides us with information we don’t really need or get elsewhere. There is also some plot threads that seem to be leftovers from previous drafts: the eye-drop drug that apparently had hold of Joe for the better part of his life, the fascination with France, and the desire to move to Paris, which quickly became Shanghai for budgetary reasons. Luckily, none of these things get in the way of the character development, action, or plot of the story. It is a testament to Johnson and the performances he gets out of his actors that not everything needs to tie up nicely to seem like it is. If Johnson is going to get any credit for the success of this film, it should be for his ability to find what is important and focus his camera on that.
Written & Directed By: Rian Johnson
Produced By: Ram Bergman & James D. Stern
Performances By: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Pierce Gagnon, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo
Sony Pictures, Running time 118 minutes, Released on September 28, 2012.