Loopers, Life, and Love

The movie “Looper” has time traveling and assassins, but also philosophical and moral depth.

Two weekends ago, I went to the movie theater for the fourth time this year, which means I’ve already doubled my in-the-cineplex movie intake over last year. I certainly like movies, but have, in recent years, spent more time following various television series, which have the advantage of being able to unfold (or unravel, in some sad cases) over the course of several years. That said, certain premises capture my attention, and the set-up for “Looper” is one of those: a time travel flick with a dose or two of philosophical musing and inference mixed in among the obligatory explosions, killing, tussles, chases, and special effects.

(Warning: Major Spoilers Ahead! Repeat: Major Spoilers Ahead!)

First, the downside: “Looper”, the third film by talented writer and director Rian Craig Johnson, is quite violent and occasionally vulgar, and sometimes in a way that is simply gratuitous. This is unfortunate, as the gore and language (and one scene with nudity) sometimes detract and distract from a movie that is propulsive, gripping, and, as it builds to a gripping conclusion, quite poignant. It succeeds as both an “action flick” and a morality play of sorts, even if the latter only emerges through a series of intermittent, but hardly random, instances of reflective dialogue borne along by exceptional cinematic storytelling. “Looper” has its share of carnage, but it is rarely crude; in fact, I think it can be plausibly argued that the intense violence is intended to inform and set in relief the deeper moral form of the film.

Of course, I’m also the same moviegoer who thought (and still thinks) that “Kill Bill, Part Two” is a (gasp!) pro-life movie, whether or not Quentin Tarantino intended such a thing. So, take it with a grain of salt. Or with an entire salt lick, if you wish. Still, I am quite happy to present my argument for “Looper” as a morality play with some worthwhile things to say—or, better, reveal in cinematic fashion—about free will, authentic love, the power of motherhood (and fatherhood, for that matter), and the nature of evil.

Nihilistic Loopers

The premise of “Looper” is that young assassins (called “loopers”) in the year 2044—prior to time travel being invented—carry out the dirty work of killing and disposing of those deemed expendable by crime syndicate bosses living in 2074, a year blessed with time travel (but not any advances in moral code). In fact, the future in 2044 is already a dystopian nightmare. Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an orphan who was saved and then trained by his boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels), is a looper living in Kansas. His life is a perpetual cycle of killing, being paid in silver bars, and partying. Repeat and repeat. He, like all loopers, knows his own “loop” will eventually close, and one of his forthcoming victims from the future will be himself. When that bizarre day of reckoning arrives, the looper receives his final payout in gold bars, and is then free to live the next thirty years (until 2074) as he wishes. As Joe says, in a voice over: “This job doesn’t tend to attract the most forward-thinking people.” However, the lives of most ordinary people in the city are so desperate and devoid of hope, the promise of thirty years of comfort and apparent freedom bears a definite logic and appeal for the young and ambitious.

The first twenty minutes of the movie establishes this grim existence, and does so with both flair and efficiency, just as the loopers carry out their hits with efficient coldness and then dive with flair (ties! suits! fancy cars!) into a nightlife of hedonistic abandonment. This perpetual cycle is essential to understanding the rest of the movie, for it is pure hedonism, and so is, ultimately, pure hell. Joe has embraced the life of damnation, assuring himself it is the only option, but doubts are on the edges of his soul. Those doubts come to a head when his best friend, Seth, visits him at night in complete panic, having failed to close his loop and having looked directly into his own eyes, thirty years older. Seth’s older, future self had told him of a master criminal mind, the Rainmaker, who has taken over the syndicates in the future and is steadily closing all loops. Joe’s time, which was already measured in just weeks or months, is now measured in days and hours. He hides Seth, but is then convinced by Abe that Seth won’t be harmed (at least too much) and, besides, Joe has a lot of silver to lose if he doesn’t cooperate. Joe, unlike many of his colleagues, has saved for the future, an indication of his desire for something more (also indicated by his learning French via audio and reading). But what is that something more, exactly? In the meantime, a particularly gruesome sequence depicts the demise of both young and old Seth, carried out by the insecure and unstable Kid Blue, one of the “Gat Men” (a security team), a lost and abrasive soul desperate to please Abe in any way he can.

Redemption or Revenge?

The second act, if you will, of “Looper” commences when Joe goes to carry out a hit (in a Kansas corn field, as always) and is suddenly staring into his own eyes, thirty years older. What follows is a masterful bit of cinematography, as old Joe, played perfectly by Bruce Willis, escapes his younger self, setting off a series of mind-bending events that have to be seen to be partially understood. In one sequence, the young Joe successfully kills his older self, and then goes to France before, apparently disillusioned, traveling to China. There, the aging Joe carries out hits for hire, while continuing his hellish cycle of drugs and sex, until finally, nearing the end of his thirty years, he finds love and sobriety, marrying an unnamed woman. He settles into a new and blissful life, until one day being visited by syndicate goons, who drag him away, but not before he witnesses his wife being shot and killed.

Those thirty years form another loop, then, which holds the hint of redemption—older Joe has found love and peace, it appears—but leaves plenty of questions on the table: Did he think he would somehow escape the syndicate and the Rainmaker? If he loved his wife, why didn’t he plan for a worse case scenario? How much of his passage from hedonism to domestic bliss was founded in love and how much stemmed from a deep desperation regarding his own fixed fate—a fate he had knowingly and freely chosen? These questions rest in his deal with the devil, the unkempt but ruthless Abe, who had “saved” the young Joe, but had never really saved him, just opened the doors to a more exciting and dramatic form of damnation.

These big questions are merely suggested, but they do shape the second half of the movie, which explores the Big Topics of fate, free will, consequences, and love without ever being ham-handed or didactic. Older Joe escapes his captors, but then chooses to travel back in time to, first, face and escape his own blunderbuss and, second, to hunt down and kill the young Rainmaker, who is just a few years old in 2044. A key scene takes place in a diner (one of few “normal” settings in the film), where the young and old Joe face off in a scene written and acted with the fabulous combination of tension, revelation, confusion, and humor. Older Joe sarcastically notes that the time travel stuff will fry one’s brain, and tries to explain the necessity of tracking down the mysterious mastermind behind the (apparently) eventual demise of both men, as well as older Joe’s wife. Most intriguing, perhaps, is older Joe’s passionate explanation of how a specific woman saved his life through her love and sacrifice, and that younger Joe will one day meet that woman. Or a woman. Abe’s “Gat Men” arrive, mayhem ensues, and the two Joes run their separate ways—the old one with two leads on the Rainmaker, the younger Joe with another.

A Mother’s Love

I’ve read several reviews that lament or otherwise express consternation at the next act of the movie. Personally, I think the final third or so of “Looper” is especially brilliant and moving. Young Joe, having fled from the diner and older Joe, arrives at a tranquil farm owned by Sara, with her young son, Cid. After a series of wary confrontations, young Joe realizes older Joe will be coming to kill Cid, one of the three possible candidates for the future’s ruthless Rainmaker. Joe and Cid form a bond despite Sara’s attempts to keep them from one another. Joe eventually learns Cid was raised by Sara’s recently deceased sister; he also learns how Sara had pursued her own self-absorbed life in the city, before rejecting it all in order to raise her son in solitude and simplicity, a choice requiring a continual fight against her fears and loneliness. This is demonstrated, rather memorably, by Sara’s regular attempts to reduce a large stump to chips with just an axe and an attitude. In Sara, Joe discovers a former mercenary (not the killing kind, but the self-serving sort) who had found meaning by sacrificing all for her son, accepting her motherhood as a difficult but true path to peace and strength. Sara, meanwhile, sees in Joe a lost soul who is willing to protect her and Cid despite having little or nothing to gain from doing so.

When a Gat Man visits the farm in search for young Joe, the increasingly mysterious Cid eventually displays his frightening telekinetic powers, destroying Jesse in a scene startling in its ferociousness, especially against the semi-idyllic background of the quiet farmhouse and surroundings. Joe realizes that Cid—whose named is derived from the Arabic for “lord” or “master”—is indeed the future Rainmaker. Or is he? Joe must wrestle with the fact that Cid could become the Rainmaker, but is still just a young boy with terrifying powers, not yet capable of controlling his rages or making mature and moral choices about life and death, good and evil. In the final, dramatic sequence, the older Joe finds the three of them and attempts to kill Cid. Young Joe realizes that Cid will escape, but that Sara will die—and that her death will be the driving force behind the young and confused Cid become the older and ruthless Rainmaker. As older Joe sets himself to shoot Sara, who has placed herself between him and the escaping Cid, the young Joe recognizes that the only way to close the loop is to remove the looper. He shoots himself, and the older Joe evaporates into time. It is both a timely decision and death. It is also the first killing by Joe that wasn’t meant to somehow benefit himself; it was a completely selfless act of self-sacrifice, committed for the sake of both the innocent (Cid) and those struggling to nurture and protect the future (Sara).

Coming Full Loop

Here I will wax so philosophical and metaphysical that readers might be tempted to find a way to time travel back to the moment prior to clicking the link to this review. Here are just three observations:

The first is that the movie depicts life as a “loop”: from dust we come, and to dust we return. It is not pantheistic or monistic (this is not a movie for Oprah-ites); on the contrary, there is no escape in this world from the arc of life concluding in death. “Looper” shows every sort of means by which men try to avoid the fact of the grave: pleasure, power, sex, drugs, destruction, control, money, and even the manipulation of time. Yet all of these fail to satisfy. The first two acts of “Looper” show how even Joe, having been “saved” by a woman in China, is still unwilling to face his mortality. It’s as if a life filled with killing has also been a life desperate to control mortality—and if not his own mortal coil, than that of others. The older Joe, having not achieved redemption, is drawn back into the web of revenge and destruction that originally shaped him.

Secondly, young Joe finally understood that just as he was not fated to be a looper and assassin until the end of life, the boy Cid is not fated to be the Rainmaker. But he also understood well the undeniable effect that death, especially the loss of parents, can have on a child. He, in a sense, was mortally wounded by the perpetual, self-inflicted nastiness of his looper life, but he was still capable of giving what he could of himself for others. (This required, however, being free of that life; the farm represents a sort of Edenic retreat from the “real” world.) His growing desire for something more—something beyond power, intoxication, and even escape in the arms of a woman—brought him to the point where he really does love others.

Finally, that love was enlivened and kindled by the example of a mother, Sara, who showed him the way to escape the loop of self-absorbed destruction. By following her example, he becomes, in his end, an example of what a true father should be: sacrificial and fully convinced goodness can prevail when real love is the catalyst and goal. The old Joe had his opportunities; he was not a cartoonish villain, but a conflicted man who eventually chooses what he knows—killing and control and revenge—over what he cannot fathom. The young Joe is flawed and scarred, but he chooses what he cannot know except by choosing it. In doing so, he breaks the loop of Abe’s false fatherhood and sets the example for Cid. And while the movie never touches on the possibility of an after life, a willingness to die for others always points, even if indirectly, to transcendent truth and those eternal things that go beyond what can be seen, touched, and tasted in this world.

One reviewer, Tom Clift, summarizes some of this quite nicely:

For despite the potentially world changing ramifications of meddling with history, Looper is less about altering the future as it is about altering oneself. Johnson never paints either Joe as a straight up hero or villain, but rather as dubiously motivated individuals who over the course of film do good things for bad reasons and bad things for good reasons, splitting audience sympathies and forcing YOU to ponder questions of selfishness versus altruism, fate versus self determination and how far you’d go to the protect the people you care about.

Exactly right, I think. And that is why I believe “Looper” is far more than just an action movie or a clever time-traveling conceit, but a post-modern, cinematic morality play with a real heart.

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About Carl E. Olson 1207 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.