Looper: a spoiler-filled exploration

If you’ve seen Looper, here’s a closer look at the developments in Rian Johnson’s excellent sci-fi movie…

Warning: spoilers ahead.

On the edge of a wheat field, a young man waits, gun in hand. A white sheet is spread out a metre or so in front of him. The young man checks his watch, and looks back at the white sheet. Checks his watch again, and looks back at the sheet.

Right on time, a human body materialises on the sheet – hooded, tightly bound, but clearly alive. The figure barely has a chance to scream before the young man guns him down. The weapon he’s holding is called a Blunderbuss, and it’s as brutally powerful as its name implies.

For a science fiction film about time travel, Looper’s opening is wilfully, self-consciously quiet. It’s written and shot with the same swagger of confidence that its maker, Rian Johnson, brought to the high school detective thriller Brick, and the long-con drama of The Brothers Bloom. Like those films, Johnson contrasts familiar genre elements – in Looper’s case, future cities, time travel and hover bikes – with unexpected ideas and images from gangster movies and noir thrillers. 

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The young man in question is named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). It’s the year 2042, and he’s a 25-year-old contract killer living in Kansas City. A low-ranking mafia employee, Joe pays regular visits to the wheat field, which is the pre-arranged drop-off point for the mob’s victims, who are sent back to Joe’s time from the year 2072. 

In the future, we learn, time travel has been invented, but murder has become almost impossible to get away with. The mafia’s solution, then, is to send its marks back to Joe’s time, where he and an army of other Loopers (as they’re called) quickly snuff out their lives with their short-range Blunderbusses.

With America still in the grip of a financial crisis, being a Looper offers considerable financial reward. Joe has enough money to indulge in his love for 20th century clothes and cars, and spends much of his spare time in clubs and getting high with his friend Seth (Paul Dano).

Of course, being a Looper also has its downside. Loopers who allow their victims to escape (called “Letting your Loop run”) will find themselves hunted down and killed by a higher-ranking class of mobsters called Gat Men. There’s also a process called ‘closing the loop’ to consider. Every Looper has a built-in shelf life, and when they sign up for the job, it’s with the knowledge that one day, their older self will also be sent back in time and killed.

This elaborate premise is efficiently established in a few scenes of world building, and Johnson deftly sells the idea that a group of relatively young assassins would trade their long-term future for short-term comfort. To a hedonistic, directionless 20-something person like Joe, 30 years probably seems like an eternity, and worth exchanging for a period of comparative wealth.

Inevitably, it’s soon Joe’s turn to have his loop closed. Back at his usual spot in the wheat field, he’s suddenly confronted with his 55-year-old self, played by Bruce Willis. Momentarily stunned by the sight, Young Joe allows Old Joe just enough time to make his escape. With mob boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) and his team of Gat Men now after him, Young Joe sets off on the trail of his older self, who also has murder on his mind.

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In a standout scene, the two Joes eventually meet in a coffee shop. Here, Johnson makes a quite funny and possibly accurate suggestion: if we were to meet our younger self, they probably wouldn’t listen to our advice. In fact, they probably wouldn’t like us at all. Old Joe mocks Young Joe’s lack of direction and naivety, while the younger dismisses the elder as a has-been. “Why can’t you just do what old people do, old man,” Young Joe says, “And die?”

With the current recession leaving the divide between generations more pronounced than ever, this scene resonates strongly with recent concerns about youthful disenfranchisement. “Are you in your 20s?” a Guardian article asked last year. “Then you’re paying a colossally high price so that people in my age bracket – 40-plus – can enjoy a rather pleasant recession, thank you very much.”

There’s certainly a frisson of that gender gap resentment in this scene, which also serves as a turning point for the plot. We learn that, in the future, Old Joe had married and settled down, but when a team of Gat Men moved in to take Old Joe away to be murdered, they accidentally shot her in the process. Old Joe then decided to travel back in time to find someone called the Rainmaker, a shadowy mob boss who orchestrates all the looping and closing of loops. By locating and killing the Rainmaker’s younger self, Old Joe hopes to save the life of the woman he loved.

It’s a plot point obviously inspired by The Terminator, but Rian Johnson refuses to allow Looper to devolve into a pure chase movie; in fact, he does the opposite. As their meeting is interrupted by the arrival of the mob, Old Joe heads off on his mission to find the Rainmaker, while Young Joe, following the clues written on a piece of paper his elder self left behind, heads to a remote farmhouse. 

There, he meets Sara (Emily Blunt), who lives on the farm with a small boy named Cid (a brilliant Pierce Gagnon) who she claims is her son. Young Joe works out that Cid may be one of the children Old Joe suspects of being the Rainmaker, and after an uneasy meeting, he moves in with Sara to protect them.

Johnson fills Looper with opposites. The decaying, Blade Runner-like sprawl of Kansas is contrasted with the tranquillity of Sara’s clapboard house in the fields. Moments of calm, or the touching romance which briefly blossoms between Young Joe and Sara, are punctuated by the thunder of a Blunderbuss, or a shocking moment of telekinetic violence. 

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Ah yes, the telekinesis. In Looper’s first act, it’s briefly mentioned that, by the 2040s, humanity will have acquired paranormal abilities. For most people, it’s only powerful enough to be used as a cheap parlour trick – one character wryly muses that it’s for “Assholes who think they’re blowing your mind by floating quarters”. So far as we can recall, it’s never explained exactly why these telekinetic powers may have come from, and of the many ideas crammed into Looper, it could be said it’s this one that doesn’t work as well as the rest.

Was the paranormal plot strand added in to bring extra, Akira-like drama to the final act? Possibly, but the resulting imagery is undeniably startling, even if it doesn’t seem to fit quite as well with the rest of the movie’s hard-boiled grit. 

The film poses other questions, too. Why, for example, does a Looper have to kill his older self? Wouldn’t it be more reliable to have someone else in the past kill them instead? It’s a little like asking a student to mark their own exam paper – the temptation to cheat would be too great to ignore. 

Time-travel paradoxes are also briefly touched on and then quickly set aside; in the diner scene mentioned earlier, Old Joe described the shifting of memories, as elements of the past are changed, as “fuzzy”, before sharply putting the issue to rest with the line, “Look, we’re gonna be here all day making diagrams with straws.” 

In fact, Looper gets away with lots of things, simply because it’s well written and acted. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is excellent as Young Joe, bringing hints of Bruce Willis’ mannerisms and laid-back speech patterns to his callow young assassin, and his performance is such that it soon becomes easy to overlook the strange prosthetics and contact lenses he’s forced to wear for the entire movie.

Jeff Daniels’ performance, as bearded mobster Abe, sparkles with wit. Willis, who’s becoming something of a sci-fi mainstay with films like 12 Monkeys and The Fifth Element under his belt, is better than he’s been for some time as Old Joe, a character who’s willing to carry out shocking crimes in order to mould the future.

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In Looper’s final scenes, Rian Johnson cleverly brings his story full circle. As Old Joe closes in on the farm, intent on killing the small boy we now know to be the young Rainmaker, Young Joe realises that he’s the unchanging element in a cycle of violence.

By attempting to alter the course of time, Old Joe inadvertently sets the boy on the path to becoming a gangster; just as Joe’s own deprived childhood set him on a criminal path, so Cid’s trauma at seeing Sarah killed will see him one day become the Rainmaker. The Young Joe shoots himself, in turn snuffing out Old Joe’s existence, and closing the loop of murder and revenge.

As we stated in our spoiler-free review a few weeks ago, Looper isn’t a perfect film, but it is a rare example of a high-concept idea handled with intelligence. In fusing science fiction, action and noir thriller elements, Rian Johnson’s concocted an unforgettably harsh, clever genre movie, which handles its themes – the effect an economic downturn has on the individual, the consequences of violence – with a lightness of touch.

At the same time, the film gets across the message that, although we get older, we don’t necessarily get any wiser. Without properly confronting mistakes – like the collective mistakes of the financial sector, which led us to the brink of financial collapse – we’re doomed to repeat them forever.

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