dir: Rian Johnson
An appreciation for time travel shenanigans is not a prerequisite for enjoying this odd but interesting film, but a lot of attention to what’s going on is mandatory for understanding it. Let your attention drift for a while, and you’ll be yelling “where did that purple elephant unicorn come from?” at the screen, much to the chagrin of the people around you.
Looper is set about 40 years in the future, in Kansas, of all places. We are told that at a time even more distant in the future, they’ve invented time travel. Not only that, but the best and only use for it they could think of was for crime lords sending back to the past people they want killed. So in 2070, they have time travel, but they can’t dispose of bodies because of the awesomeness of forensic technology. In 2044, they don’t have time travel, but they shoot these people who are sent into the past.
These killers, who wait in a designated spot with a gun called a blunderbuss, are the loopers from which the flick gets its title. The looper we’re concerned with is Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who shoots these hooded people who appear out of nowhere, collects the silver strapped to their bodies, and then disposes of the corpses.
These loopers have contracts with their employer Abe (Jeff Daniels). It is understood that, as part of their terms of service, eventually, someone is going to be sent back that they themselves are going to kill, finding gold, instead of silver, strapped to the body, and something vaguely familiar about the victim.
That person sent back, for their last job, will be themselves, 30 years in the future, thus closing the loop.
See, this is what happens when you don’t have a strong union: you don’t get a dental plan and you end up killing yourself for the boss man.
Joe doesn’t seem to have any issue with killing these shmos, because, let’s face it, what else are you going to do in the future? 2044 looks like a very shitty, ugly time in the world’s history, but we’re given the impression that the future is only going to get worse. So live life to the fullest in the present, and forget about what’s coming, that’s their motto, and mine too.
Joe doesn’t seem that happy, and in fact keeps using some drug he keeps dropping into his eyes that dulls the pain of existence but does not ease a conscience which doesn’t seem like it needs that much easing. He tries to have some kind of relationship with a stripper/working girl (Piper Peribo), who keeps looking at the clock during their deep and meaningful chats, but it doesn’t really pan out, sad to say.
What this aspect reminded me of was the sad, predictable fact that films set at any time in the present or future will always have scenes set in strip clubs because screenwriters can’t imagine any other way to get the mandatory nudity quotient into their films. As clichés go I was amazed they didn’t go to Chinatown or have an evil twin appear out of nowhere.
As a future setting, except for the time travel back (no-one goes forwards, at this stage), this isn’t a particularly advanced looking time. About the only other thing that’s majorly different is that people are starting to manifest the ability to push small objects around with their minds. Guys try to impress chicks in bars by making a quarter float a couple of centimetres above the palm of their hand, apparently. I can’t imagine any woman who wasn’t going to sleep with you anyway sleeping with you because you can float a coin. Telekinesis is introduced so casually, and then dropped for most of the flick to the point where I completely forgot about it in the story until it comes back with a vengeance much later on. Don’t forget about it, that’s all I’m saying.
Joe receives a late night knock at the window when a friend (Paul Dano) and fellow looper confesses to making the ultimate error as a looper: he somehow managed to fail to execute the old man version of himself like he was supposed to when he was sent through. Joe initially hides this friend, and gets sent to the principal’s office, in the form of his boss Abe.
Jeff Daniels plays a crime boss, but in a dishevelled, avuncular kind of way. He doesn’t threaten or scream abuse at Joe, he just reminds him of their shared history, and how Abe gave Joe’s life meaning and purpose. In other words, Jeff Daniels plays a slightly less evil version of the chap he plays on The Newsroom cable series.
Whatever it is that Joe does or doesn’t do, we’re confronted with the horrifying temporal effects of what happens to a guy from the future when you’ve captured his younger self: anything you do to the old guy is immaterial, but whatever ‘change’ you effect upon the younger version instantly manifests on the old guy. I think the relevant word is causality, but it could just as easily be labelled casuistry, but let’s not play word games, okay? The horrifying fate for the old guy who thinks he got away is that until he is brought to heel, he begins losing fingers and limbs at an alarming rate.
In other words, they’re changing the present by changing the present. Wrap your head around that.
Inevitably we know that Joe is going to face his own mortality by being sent his older version, but something goes awry when he’s confronted by his older self (Bruce Willis). So Young Joe and Old Joe face off, and chat, not really liking each other at all, figuring out where to go from here.
That’s the biggest kicker with an elaborately complicated scenario like this: the real dynamic, as opposed to the plot machinations that we’re potentially going to care about, is that given the chance to talk to a thirty-year older or thirty-year younger version of yourself, what would you say, what would you do? I mean, in this flick, one of those versions is being compelled to kill the other to save his own hide, but really, the disappointment or contempt is quite awe-inspiring. Old Joe is disgusted by his younger self’s arrogance and short-sightedness, being reminded of how immature and callow he was, and Young Joe thinks his old self is pathetic and needs to just die already.
How about for the rest of us? If we were given the chance, without the guns and the sci-fi elements, what would you tell a younger version of yourself? Don’t do that thing you’re going to do in three months, because it’s the worst mistake ever, you should have done that other thing because, make sure you don’t let her out of your life because she was the only person giving your life meaning before she left overseas etc etc etc.
The reality, I think, is that being the idiots we are as a species, who can’t be told anything, we’d still ignore whatever it is anyone told us, even ourselves. We’re just like that, and we hate unsolicited advice, even from the most credible sources. Of course we’d make the same mistakes, and other stuff we could never have changed, but hey, it’s worth it not even to try.
Of course Young Joe’s going to ignore everything Old Joe says. He’s not dependent on Old Joe for anything, but Old Joe absolutely depends on Young Joe continuing to live and breath in order for him to continue to live and breath. Old Joe has two agendas, however. One of them is sweet. The other, even though it’s for the right reasons, is horrifying, utterly horrifying, and we’re not immune to the horror of what it is he’s trying to do in order to safeguard his memories of the next thirty years that haven’t even happened yet.
Young Joe and Old Joe’s agendas are completely at odds, and their final conflict is inevitable, but there are plenty more things that need to happen before we get to the end. There is so much going on in this film, so many complicated aspects, so many other characters that I haven’t even mentioned, and I’m not going to. It’s necessary enough that people discover the elements on their own, because I think then it’ll have a bit more meaningful resonance for them that way.
The only other thing I’ll point out, something crucial, is the way the film depicts the timeline for Joe, as in: after we see Old Joe appear, fight with Young Joe and then scamper away, so that the shit hits the fan for Young Joe, the strangest thing happens which did my head in a bit but which makes complete sense and is utterly necessary.
That is, we get to see what happened the first time. You see, the first time Old Joe was sent through, Young Joe killed him, and then he lived his life, fell in love, eventually lived happily until the day when the arch-criminal orchestrating all these events had his goons grab him to send him through. Again? But this time Old Joe makes some significant changes, with the intention of undoing the loop instead of closing it, by taking steps to ensure that, thirty years from now, there is no-one to send him back.
Did you get all that? There will be a quiz come Monday morning. Involvement is mandatory. Failure will be roundly mocked. People will point fingers and say “ha ha” at you in a very derisive manner.
This is a long film, so everything I’ve described doesn’t even cover the second, even more important part of the flick, but I’m just going to leave it be. Maybe there are aspects of the film that aren’t as seamless as I thought, and maybe they’ll fall apart under scrutiny. At the moment I don’t care. At the moment the only great plot hole for me is that the supergenius who creates and abuses this temporal technology thirty years in the future, who sends back people he wants eliminated could theoretically just as easily be sending people back to the Dark Ages, or the Mesozoic or Triassic periods, where their presence isn’t going to matter, nor what they know or what they do, and they could be pleading their case with some pterodactyl who doesn’t need to be paid in silver. Surely that’s a cleaner system than the one developed? Maybe there was some tech reason why it had to be thirty years, but it’s not apparent to me.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis both do sterling work playing people with issues rarely seen in the millions of flicks that have come out in the last 100 years. They do some cosmetic / prosthetic work on Gordon-Levitt to make him look more like Willis, and it works, because he doesn’t look or act like he usually does in the flicks he’s been in thus far. He’s just so good in everything I’ve seen him in, in the last five years or so, and though there will never, ever, ever be a sequel to this film, it’s great to see him in complicated stuff that aims to be more than just action, ‘splosions and tits.
Lest my enthusiasm makes it seem like I’m being overly effusive about this flick, let me just say that it didn’t completely blow me away. It’s definitely one of the flicks of the year, and is really well put together; very keenly constructed as I would expect of Rian Johnson, whose previous features shared a similar complexity and meticulous scene construction, especially when it came to action.
But it didn’t completely wow me, and I can’t really explain why without spoiling the flick irredeemably. I think the flick has the perfect ending, or, really, the only ending such a construction could result in that’s both satisfying and meaningful, but it leaves us in something of a quandary as to whose side we should really be on: Old Joe or Young Joe? Because even though we get an appropriate ending, how do we know if it’s the ‘right’ one, the one that should have happened? And does it avert what we think it’s going to avert, or will it make things much worse for everyone?
Who knows, and I guess it doesn’t matter. I’m looking for excuses where none need to be sought. It’s an interesting flick, let’s just leave it there, definitely one of the better sci-fi flicks of recent years, and I appreciate that the human element is not overshadowed by any of the tech or the gunplay.
The ideas, the ideas are where the gold is, not strapped to the backs of hapless time travellers.
7 times I imagine some people could enjoy watching Emily Blunt chop wood all day long out of 10
“Time travel has not yet been invented. But thirty years from now, it will have been.” – I wonder how longer they laboured over what the correct tense to use in that sentence would be - Looper