As most people know by now, Rian Johnson’s new film “Looper” is about time travel. Billed as a science fiction action movie, it is also about the choices we make and why we make them. In the end, which I will not reveal, it is also about love.
As I write this, the lyrics of a Marvin Hamlisch song is playing in my brain (the 1975 Broadway musical “A Chorus Line” song “What I Did for Love”). Don’t worry, this movie isn’t a musical or even a movie with music. Johnson has chosen Joseph Gordon-Levitt to carry his new film; he used him in that $500,000 crime drama “Brick.”
Gordon-Levitt has come a long way since he was on the TV series “Third Rock from the Sun” and he again proves that some of the best dramatic actors are comedians. Gordon-Levitt is Young Joe. For most of the movie, we are following Young Joe’s point of view. He lives in 2044 and life is grim. The U.S. has suffered an economic collapse and organized crime has taken the law into its own hands. This isn’t a steampunk scenario, but a 1950s cool cat despotic future. That means it’s a guys world and the women are playthings at the mercy of men.
Young Joe lives in Kansas working for a mafia company as what is known as a looper–that’s a hitman from the future who kills people from the future in the past. Young Joe explains: “I work as a specialized assassin, in an outfit called the Loopers. When my organization from the future wants someone to die, they zap them back to me and I eliminate the target from the future. The only rule is: never let your target escape… even if your target is you.”
How does that work? In 2074, time travel has finally been invented. We already know from numerous movies that time travel will cause chaos and going on that sort of evidence (we have to guess) the government has outlawed it usage. Now I’m not sure if I believe that the government isn’t really using time travel for its own benefit (think of Scott Bakula in “Quantam Leap”), but that’s a totally different matter for another movie. The mob decided that this is a a better way (than littering in the ocean or feeding hogs) of body disposal: Send the body to an appointed place at an appointed time, have a hired hit man kill and burn the body of a person who doesn’t exist. Pay the hitman with bars of silver that is taped to the back of the hit.
The loose end is the assassin. That person is killed 30 years in the future. The person is sent back to be killed him his past self and the hit is signaled by the bars being gold instead of silver.
The bars of precious metal saves the bullet from traveling anywhere beyond the hit’s back and causing an unintended casualty. That’s also why the flatlands of Kansas are ideal. Nothing for miles, except possibly cornfields.
No crop circles appear, but cornfields play an important role in this movie and they grow thick and high (as an elephant’s eye). A blonde woman will also appear, and there will be a battle over her.
I’ve never been to Kansas, but in 2044, it’s not a happening place. Out of boredom, loopers who aren’t the most forward looking people according to Young Joe, hang out at the club La Belle Aurore which is run by their mafia. As it happens, Young Joe is teaching himself French although their boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels), advises him to learn Chinese. He and his best friend Seth (Paul Dano) take drugs and pick up girls–Seth is one of the small percentage of humans who have a mutated skill of telekinesis and uses his ability to levitate coins to impress women. Young Joe spends time with a prostitute/showgirl named Suzie (Piper Perabo).
In time, we see loopers who have their loop closed–a guy celebrates the end of his contract. He has 30 years to live life as he pleases. Others are not so happy. One day, Seth comes to Young Joe, asking to be hidden. Seth hesitated and allowed his future self to escape. The mob is now searching for both Young Seth and Old Seth (Frank Brennan). Young Joe agrees against his better judgment to hide Young Seth.
When the mob muscle men led by the major screw-up Kid Blue (Noah Segan), come and take Joe to be questioned by Abe, Young Joe sells out his friend, Seth.Can we really blame Young Joe? He really never knew love; his parents deserted him and the mob is his only family. Young Seth is tortured and forces Old Seth to go to a specific place. Yet Young Seth has already warned Young Joe of a man called the Rainmaker who is closing all the looper contracts.
In time, Young Joe’s contract is closed but he fails to kill his older self–not so much due to hesitation as to being tricked and the chase begins with Young Joe and Old Joe (Bruce Willis) fleeing to escape the mob and each other, looking for the boy who will become the Rainmaker.
Old Joe wants to kill the Rainmaker not so much to save himself, but to save the woman he loved and married. But every baby has a mother and mothers will often go to great lengths to save their children.
Young Joe eventually resolves to end the loop, to make things right and his decision is based on what he has learned about love and because he has come to love.
Gordon-Levitt has a steeliness that has no softness. The softness we see is in Willis who through flash forwards we watch turning from a thug to a gentle grateful soul settling down in the end of his thirty years with Qing Xu. Gordon-Levitt has that characteristic Willis squint that makes you believe he could be Willis’ character (make up helps this transformation), just a meaner, more callow young version. Don’t we all regret the stupidity of our youth? As the child that Young Joe befriends, Pierce Gagnon has a spooky quality–he looks younger than the 10-year-old he is supposed to be, but his speech and mannerisms are of a mature geeky teen except when he has a tantrum and acts like a 2 and a half year old terror.
Johnson’s story telling is economical and lean. Where many time travel movies emphasize style over substance or the big bang of special effects, the heart of this story is humanity, alienation and the choice to become a part of the solution. As for the part about love, it’s not schmaltzy as in the 1980 Christopher Reeve-Jane Seymour cult film “Somewhere in Time” or filled with yearning as “The Time Traveler’s Wife” or bittersweet parted by time lovers such as the 1947 Gene Tierney-Rex Harrison “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” or the 1948 Jennifer Jones-Joseph Cotten “Portrait of Jennie.” In the end, there’s a feeling of pragmatic decisiveness without a trace of nobility of purpose.
My major quibble is that although we have the common place saying of “woman’s intuition” and women have progressively become more influential with the rise of technology equalizing the power struggle between genders, this movie falls back on the logic of male dominance in a violent world. I suppose this is why the 1950s vibe is so necessary.
The end is unexpected but makes sense within the logic of the film and the emotional evolution of Young Joe in a manner that Old Joe also realized, but not as fully as Young Joe. Young Joe and Old Joe make different choices, but they both are based on love.
This movie has sparked a debate on Roger Ebert’s blog in an essay that asks about faith and religion and ponders if one should have killed baby Adolph Hitler if one could time travel. That is perhaps too conventional a solution and not, based on the movie “Looper” that I would suppose Johnson would have chosen.
By thinking outside of the loop, we can close the loop and, Johnson suggests in this movie, end the vicious cycles of hate and violence. The choice is both love and self-sacrifice, but luckily we don’t have to face suicide by homicide to bring us to that choice.