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The great technological innovation in Rian Johnson’s “Looper” isn’t the time travel that allows criminals in 2074 to dispose of enemies by sending them back to 2044, where assassins, known as “loopers,” await to blow them away; it’s the CGI/prosthetics that allow Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing young Joe in 2044, to look like Bruce Willis, who plays old Joe sent back from 2074. It helps that JGL also does a pretty good Bruce Willis imitation: that pursed, amused smirk; the whispery low tone.
Thirty years is a long time but Bruce Willis has been a star almost that long. “Moonlighting” went on the air in 1985 and in 1988 we got “Die Hard.” For a guy whose fame seemed like a fluke, and who’s had his share of bombs (“Bonfire of the Vanities” and “Hudson Hawk” were released in back-to-back years), he keeps on keeping on. He also makes movies that will be remembered: “Die Hard,” “Pulp Fiction,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable.”
Letting your loop run
The movie opens with a stopwatch, young Joe’s, because he’s awaiting another victim from the future to blow away. We also get young Joe’s voiceover explaining the situation. In 2044 time travel hasn’t been invented yet. In 2074 it has but it’s been outlawed. Our first message is an NRA message: outlaw time travel and only outlaws will use time travel.
We get bits of Joe’s life in Kansas in 2044. He’s studying French. He chats up Beatrix, a waitress at his favorite diner, and parties at night with his looper buddies, and gets wasted with eyedrop drugs. He sees a good-looking whore occasionally, Susie (Piper Perabo), and the next day he starts the cycle again. Kansas looks like a futuristic Hooverville but Joe feels nothing for the people around him. He’s a looper, after all. He kills folks for a living.
Every once in a while, a looper kills his older self, sent back from 2074, and he’s cashed out of the biz. This is known as “closing the loop,” we’re told. Every once in a while, a looper can’t kill his older self sent back from 2074, and allows him to escape. This is known as “letting your loop run,” we’re told. The latter happens to Joe’s friend, Seth (Paul Dano), who is also a TK, meaning he has mild telekinesis powers. When he lets his loop run, Seth shows up in Joe’s place and begs for help; he gets it, grudgingly. But then Joe is pulled in before Abe (Jeff Daniels, bearded), the 2070s gangster who runs the operation, and he give up Seth. When young Seth dies, old Seth disappears. Bit by bit. Nose first. Let this be a lesson.
It isn’t. Old Joe shows up and young Joe hesitates before killing him. The hesitation is all. Old Joe decks his younger self, runs, and our battle is engaged.
How did young Joe become Old Joe? He’d been studying French (“nous avons... vous avez...”), but, redirected by Abe, he wound up in Shanghai, where he lived off his looper earnings. He partied, did drugs... I guess that’s about it. That was his life. Then he went back to gangstering. Then he met a girl (Qing Xu), whom he loved, and who weaned him from eyedrop drugs. They built a life together. Then the bad guys came and took it all away. A gangster named Rainmaker, whom we never see, but who came to power by himself, without associates, is sending back all the old loopers to be killed by their younger selves; and when they grab Old Joe they kill Qing Xu, too. At the time-travel launch pad, Joe turns the tables and kills his captors. At this point why doesn’t he run? Why does he still send his sorry ass back to Kansas 2044? So he can find Rainmaker as a child and kill him and thus save Qing Xu.
Letting your loop run amuck
At this point, we get all kinds of fun time-travel shit. Young Joe sets up a meeting with Old Joe by burning the meeting place (“BEATRIX”) onto his arm, which will suddenly appear as a scar on the arm of old Joe. That kind of thing.
Though little is known of Rainmaker, Old Joe knows when and where he was born. He also has the addresses of the three kids who were born on that day and in that place, and, like the Terminator seeking out all the Sarah Connors of 1984, Old Joe seeks out all the kids who might grow up to be Rainmaker. The first is a curly haired tyke returning from school. He turns. There’s Old Joe with a gun. I know I’m a dick but it’s a shame they didn’t show the killing, which needs to be done, but which involves showing Bruce Willis actually blowing away an innocent five-year-old. I’m sure the filmmakers, or the studio, or Bruce Willis’ agent, decided we have to maintain some sympathy for the character, not to mention our aging star. The killing is merely suggested.
The second child turns out to be the son of Susie, which is an unnecessary coincidence. The third child is at a farm near fields of dry sugar cane, where young Joe, who got the address from Old Joe, lies in wait. He still wants to close his loop so he can continue to live his life for another 30 years. Until, you know, he kills himself.
The farm is run by the no-nonsense Sara (Emily Blunt), who is a bit of a TK. Her boy, Cid (Pierce Gagnon), takes a shine to Joe and less so to Sara, whom he claims is not his real mom. He says he remembers his real mom. “When I was a baby,” he says, all pudgy cheeks and fierce eyes, “I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t stop her from getting killed. I wasn’t strong enough.” It’s poignant and the boy is quite good. He gives off a scary, “Twilight Zone” vibe here.
I’ll cut to the chase. The boy is an all-powerful TK who can blow apart people with his mind, and who, yes, becomes the Rainmaker. Old Joe shows up at the farm after killing Abe and his men, and he and young Joe have a showdown. Old Joe gets the upper hand, or at least enough of one to have both Cid and Sara in his sites; and it leads to this epiphany from young Joe, our narrator, who tells us he sees it all happening: Old Joe killing Sara; a motherless Cid forced to raise himself in a brutal world until he comes of age and takes his awful revenge upon it. But Joe sees a way out of this unending cycle. He turns his shotgun on himself and pulls the trigger. Old Joe blips out of existence, never having been, while Cid now has a chance to use his powers for good. Or something.
Letting your loop run off at the mouth
As I said, “Looper” is clever at times, but I still got bored. I wanted less action, more talk. There are so many possibilities during the scene at the diner. Old Joe chastises his younger self, lays into him and calls him stupid, as most of us would do if we could face our younger selves. (Think Morgan Freeman’s speech in “Shawshank.”) It would have been fun to see more of this. But that would’ve been a different movie.
Some moments don’t make much sense, either. I’m not talking about the inevitable time-travel paradoxes—e.g., if old Joe never existed, how did young Joe wind up on Sara’s farm with the motivation to shoot himself? No, my quibbles relate more to matters of logic. Such as:
- If criminals in 2074 send their enemies back in time to die because it’s impossible to dispose of a body in 2074, why don’t they kill the enemy first and send back the body for disposal? Why not time-travel it to a graveyard? Wouldn’t this be easier? Less expensive? Allow for fewer fuck-ups with the space-time continuum?
- Is time travel also location travel? Old Joe is zapped from Shanghai 2074 to Kansas 2044 rather than Shanghai 2044. If so, can you do one without the other? And is location travel allowed in 2074? Would help with the commute, certainly.
- Is Old Joe prevented from killing the second kid? If so, why doesn’t he return to finish the job?
- Can Old Joe reset the time pod? If so, why doesn’t he? He could show up earlier. He could kill Cid more leisurely.
- How can Old Joe take his younger self hostage at the diner? Isn’t that like this scene from “Blazing Saddles”? Shouldn’t Abe’s men laugh and kill both men? Or just kill young Joe and let Old Joe blip out of existence?
- Why the term “looper”? These guys aren’t looping anything. I kept thinking of the way Big Bird mispronounces Mr. Hooper’s name on “Sesame Street.” I went into and out of the theater with Big Bird’s voice in my head.
Some critics feel “Looper” is deep. I think it has the chance to be so; I think it just stayed pretty close to shore.
October 1, 2012
© 2012 Erik Lundegaard