(This blog contains spoilers – pretty much all of them – so it is basically for people who have seen the film or who realise that spoilers do not in fact spoil a film. Indeed, knowing what happens plot-wise allows you to tell if the film is actually any good, because a good film will keep you interested in spite of knowing the twists, while a mediocre film relies on the twists and not on how they are revealed to entertain audiences.)
I like Rian Johnson’s films. Brick (USA, 2005) is a quirky high school noir that has very dark edges around its comic exterior, while The Brothers Bloom (USA, 2008) is under-watched and a bit under-rated – Johnson can do the con film as well as any.
In some respects, I like Looper, but I am also a bit disappointed by it – and my disappointment springs from a different outlook on the world to the one that Johnson’s film seems to me to present, and which I shall elaborate below.
Looper tells the story of Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who kills men sent back in time from 2074 to 2044, when he lives. One day, an older version of himself (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time and Joe fails to kill him. Instead, he must go on the hunt for him – along with all of the crooks who are disappointed that young Joe has failed to ‘close his loop’ – i.e. to kill his older self, a standard practice for loopers who then have thirty years of happy retirement.
Old Joe does not want to die because, although he has spent many years as a violent killer both in Kansas, the film’s principle setting, and in Shanghai, which features during a brief section that summarises Joe’s ‘retirement’, he latterly learns to be good thanks to a woman (Summer Qing/Qing Xu), whom we never hear speak and who basically looks lovingly at Old Joe in the bits in which she features.
We sort of understand Old Joe not wanting to die – who does want to die? – but he’s not exactly a saint, either. In order to stop himself from dying, he decides to use his obligation to travel back in time in order to kill the childhood version of a future supervillain called the Rainmaker, who is ordering the closing of all the loops, i.e. the deaths of all of the loopers – including Joe himself.
If you’re not sure what this means, let’s put it another way: yes, the Rainmaker’s future crime will be – as far as the film is concerned – cleaning up the streets of heartless hitmen.
The problem is that this heartless hitman, Old Joe, now has a heart – and it’s been broken, since the men who took Joe also killed his seemingly mute wife – and so revenge must be his.
Only Old Joe does not know who the Rainmaker is – no one does. All Old Joe knows is that it’s one of three kids born on a certain day and living, as if by coincidence, in the very same county that he worked in (as a looper) in his youth.
And Old Joe happily kills at least one of the kids – and shoots another in the face, this other kid turning out to be the future Rainmaker.
Regular Joe decides to to stop Old Joe from killing the Rainmaker, his motivation being that by virtue of meeting Old Joe the chances of Old Joe’s life becoming the life that regular Joe leads – or vice versa – are greatly diminished, leaving regular Joe free to grow up into a different Old Joe who won’t have the same regrets as Old Joe does. That and because regular Joe believes that his future self should not want to live any longer than the deal is for loopers – the mandatory 30 years – because obviously there is honour among murdering thieves.
Or rather, there is no honour here. Regular Joe is an anti-hero if nothing else: he sells out his best friend Seth (Paul Dano), who is mutilated before being killed, and he wants to kill his older self so as to avoid a life on the run. In other words, regular Joe thinks only about himself and his glamorous lifestyle.
In trying to prevent Old Joe from killing the kid who would be Rainmaker, however, regular Joe meets and falls partially in love with Sara (Emily Blunt), the mother of the Rainmaker-to-be and whom regular Joe is protecting.
It is not that regular Joe learns a sense of moral responsibility. His’love’ for Sara is superficial at best. Furthermore, the kid who will or might become the Rainmaker, Cid (Pierce Gagnon), is, or at least can be, a mean, telekinetic (“teleki-what?“) little shit – with shades of We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, UK/USA, 2011) characterising their mother-son relationship.
It is only because Sara promises to raise Cid to be a good kid, to not become the Rainmaker, that the future might be averted. And Joe believes that Sara can do this, in spite of seeing Cid violently kill a man with the power of thought. For this reason, regular Joe decides to stop Old Joe from acting out his selfish love fantasy in the future.
Now, I do quite like Looper, even if the above synopsis makes it sound a bit dumb. The film has plenty of scenes that feature the quirky dialogue and narrative elements that Johnson is well known for: Sara describing how she found Cid after her sister, who was also Cid’s foster mother, had been killed (she was wearing a party dress and felt stupid); the frog beeper warning system that Sara forgets as soon as she is given it; the inept gunplay from useless henchman Kid Blue (Noah Segan).
These quirks lend to the film something human and touching, as do Johnson’s indulgences towards his actors (Jeff Daniels as crime boss Abe, who has been sent back from 2074 to oversee the loopers, in particular gets to showboat a nice amount in this film: “Trust me, I’m from the future. You want to go to China.”).
That said, Looper also has some daft elements. Foremost among these is the fact that it takes Old Joe several days to find and to kill the kids that could become the Rainmaker – even though he has their addresses and the local city seems pretty small. Furthermore, Old Joe also decides to risk his life by killing Abe and his many henchmen rather than getting on with killing Cid (and in spite of using loads of machine guns and grenades to do the former, he decides only to take a relatively small handgun to carry out the latter).
Furthermore, as the reduction of Old Joe’s wife to pure, unspeaking image suggests, Johnson does not care much for his female characters. Sara is, like Old Joe, something of a reformed character; a former party girl in the city, she now realises that raising Cid well is all that is important – but she does not really feature too strongly in the narrative (as mentioned, her love with/for regular Joe is superficial at best). Stripper Suzie (Piper Perabo), coincidentally the mother of the second could-be-Rainmaker child whose death we never see (because it never happens?), seems to be a woman that regular Joe wants to protect, meaning that regular Joe views Suzie not as a person but as an image to possess. In Suzie’s favour, she knocks regular Joe back, saying that she is quite happy being a stripper, since she has her independence, an independence that is rendered in the film as a cruel rejection of Joe such that she both basically disappears from the film and so that Old Joe must of course kill her son (whether he achieves this or not) to punish her for not wanting him.
However, in spite of these good and bad aspects of the film, none is quite what I want specifically to discuss.
What I want to discuss is the role of possible worlds in the film.
This isn’t about describing quantum physics and the like. Rather, we can stick to Looper and the other films that it talks to, rather than half-digested and half-developed theories from science, to explain what I mean.
Looper has various reference points. Foremost among these is the relationship between America and France. Joe is learning French (slowly) in the hope of moving to France upon closing his loop (something he never does, since he moves to China in the version of events that we see).
This desire to learn French expresses a desire to be in the old world – a desire for some old world sophistication, compared to the new world flash, glitz and shallow relationships and violence.
Joe’s desire to be French is mirrored in part by Johnson’s film itself. There are a couple of nods to Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle/2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (France, 1967), for example: twice in Looper we see cream clouding in a coffee cup in a manner reminiscent of Godard’s cosmos in a coffee cup sequence from that film.
The somewhat crummy and still-industrial city also partly suggests Godard’s sci-fi classic, Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution/Alphaville (France/Italy, 1965) – although the Kansas setting cannot help but also evoke The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, USA, 1939), which arguably makes of the film a Depression-era escapist fantasy, making it an interesting bedfellow with the also-quirky Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, USA, 2012).
Furthermore, beyond the chaotic semi-references to Godard, any time travel film that involves a doubling of the self naturally recalls the great and late Chris Marker’s La Jetée (France, 1962). Indeed, here the casting of Bruce Willis becomes important, because Willis has of course played the role of the time-travelling anti-hero before – in Terry Gilliam’s remake of La Jetée, Twelve Monkeys (USA, 1995).
In other words, Johnson seems to express some sort of kinship with France. However, this kinship is for me superficial – in the same way that Twelve Monkeys does not match La Jetée in a lot of ways.
For, I am not sure that Johnson ‘gets’ much of the politics of the French New Wave. Godard may have spoken of making films that feature just images, but he also wanted to make films featuring images that are just. And this is perhaps what is lacking in Johnson’s film.
Maybe this can be expressed inadvertently through the film’s other casting: Piper Perabo, who plays Suzie, also played Geneviève Le Plouff in Melanie Mayron’s somewhat dim-witted Slap Her, She’s French! (Germany/USA/UK, 2002). As Joe wants Suzie/Perabo, so do Johnson and Joe seemingly want to be French, without realising that the object of their desire is in fact not French at all, but an actress pretending to be French, a superficial understanding of what it is or might be to be French. As Suzie is reduced simply to a symbol in the film, so, too, is France and the French films to which Johnson seems to wish to speak.
Not only is Looper a bit superficial, then, but it also seems to fail to understand the lessons learned from La Jetée and from other time travel loop films such as Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, USA, 2001), which seems a much more appropriate point of comparison for this film than is, say, The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, USA, 1999), to which the film has otherwise and to my mind erroneously been compared.
In La Jetée, the man (Davos Hanich) is sent back in time – to various different points in time – in order to try to save the world from the fate that awaits it after World War Three: no food, a life underground, no medicine, etc. Like Joe in Looper, he is haunted by the woman that he loves, as well as by an image of a man being shot at Orly airport in his childhood. At the film’s climax, the man realises that he saw his own death as a kid.
While La Jetée suggests that even if we could travel in time we cannot escape our own fate, Looper tries to be more upbeat. It says that maybe we can change the future, that perhaps we are only always ever changing the future – since every interaction between regular Joe and Old Joe causes Old Joe’s memories to change.
In some ways, Johnson’s film has here a sophisticated understanding of what time travel might be like and the parallel universes that are opened up by it. Furthermore, the way in which Old Joe and regular Joe basically completely disagree with each other suggests that Johnson understands humans as ultimately multiple – we could become many different people in our lives – and Cid could end up not being the Rainmaker – a source of hope perhaps in that we are not doomed from the off to a pre-ordained destiny to which we personally do not have access.
However, while I like all of this in terms of its understanding of the multiverse and of the multiple personalities that exist as potential within us as individuals, it seems to miss something.
Perhaps a closer comparison with Donnie Darko can bring this out. In Richard Kelly’s film, Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) realises that in the 28 days since he was supposed to have died, all of his fantasies come true: he gets the girl, he’s a hero at school, a period of total wish fulfilment made clear by Donnie’s line to Gretchen (Jena Malone): “how do you know I’m not [a superhero]?”
However, Donnie learns that having all that he desires is not all it is cracked up to be. For living beyond his own death and having his fantasies fulfilled also causes Gretchen to die at the hands of Frank (James Duval), who is in turn shot dead by Donnie.
In other words, while one can know that there are many parallel universes and many parallel lives for us to lead, I wonder that the moral choice that one should make is to accept the life that one has – since one never knows what will be the consequences of one’s selfish desires, of fulfilling one’s own fantasies.
If this is what Donnie Darko seems to tell us – Donnie goes back to the moment of his death at the hands of a falling jet engine so that Gretchen can live – this is not what Looper seems to suggest. Looper instead seems to suggest that we should fight to change our fates.
This might seem counterintuitive to argue. For, at the film’s climax regular Joe kills himself in order to prevent Old Joe from trying to kill Cid, an act that most likely will make him become precisely the Rainmaker that Old Joe is hoping to eradicate.
(And if Old Joe succeeded in killing Cid, what then?)
And yet, in killing himself regular Joe consigns Old Joe to being a deluded weirdo who is preparing to kill kids in order to spend some more time with his wife and in order maybe to have kids of his own.
Maybe this is fair enough: that Joe, Old Joe, is irreconcilably nasty – in spite of believing himself not to be – and self-interested, that regular Joe, who learns how to be nice, must kill him off by killing himself off.
But it seems disappointing on a certain level for Old Joe not to realise the error of his ways and to let Cid go – and in such a way that in doing this Cid might also not become the Rainmaker that he is otherwise supposedly destined to become.
We are told by Abe that coming back from the future addles one’s brain – and maybe this is plainly what happens to Old Joe. Nothing too complex, in spite of the gimmickry around time travel: just a guy going mental because he’s ended up 30 years in the past with a younger version of himself.
Indeed, how many people do die without learning moral lessons? How is this not like the rage of a drunken brawler who will not see reason – and why should I cling to and endeavour to judge Johnson’s film by a romantic notion that reason will ‘out’ and that we would choose to accept our fates. We know full well that some people are just not like that – and they will take all that they can regardless of the cost to others.
So in some senses, Johnson’s film is insightful: some people – ourselves, even – will not and never will see reason, and so must be killed.
But if Johnson’s film claims to offer hope – the Rainmaker may not grow up to be an evil telekinetic tyrant – it does so by being hopeless about Old Joe’s capacity to change. In other words, there is bad faith in Old Joe (he must be killed), such that the supposed ‘good faith’ in Cid/the Rainmaker (he might grow up to be good) seems unfounded. If there were good faith, the Joes would work out some way around the conundrum.
Abe and regular Joe discuss the latter’s propensity to wear ties. Abe mocks Joe for trying to affect a twentieth century look taken from the movies. Johnson’s film may be self-conscious about the role of affectation and the appropriation of styles – but this does not prevent Johnson’s film from precisely affecting to offer us something that ultimately it does not match, since it is only an affectation without the conviction of the original.
Perhaps this is why the film’s most experimental opening half hour, with formally interesting upside down sequences, stretched images, and more, disappear from the film when the prerogative demanding at least some action kicks in and Johnson must respond to the need for his film to make some money.
This was La Jetée‘s total genius – making me miss Chris Marker even more: his film is composed almost entirely of still images. That is, not only does Marker not resort to regular action as Johnson does in Looper, but he makes a film that is almost entirely devoid of action in the conventional sense of the word (moving people, moving images).
Johnson’s film reflects a world without conviction – and as such is fascinating and surely well made – just like the films of Christopher Nolan, to whom no doubt some/many will compare Looper, if not his other films. But this world without conviction seems to wear a mask of conviction (as Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears a mask throughout the film to make him look a bit more like Bruce Willis – at least, I assume this to be the case), but never shows its true face. A great film always allows its true face to emerge; it accepts its fate, rather than aspiring to be cinematic on someone else’s terms. Rather than having it all, it accepts its limitations and realises that it is those limitations that perhaps set us most free.