Most of the buzz surrounding Looper, the mind-bending, time-travel thriller by rising writer/director Rian Johnson (Brick, Brothers Bloom), is that it’s a slick variation on the philosophical conundrum, “What if you could go back in time and kill the young Hitler?” To a very limited extent, the buzz is true.
What’s more true (and more interesting considering so many mainstream critics seem unable or unwilling to confront the theme) is that Looper delves into the question that has most deeply divided Americans since 1973: Is it acceptable to sacrifice the life of a child in order to secure a more promising future for yourself?
The story starts in 2044, where time travel does not yet exist but soon will. For obvious reasons, once the technology is invented, it is immediately outlawed, leaving only outlaws to make use of it. Some of those outlaws are loopers—mob assassins who kill victims sent back from the future. It’s a good living with one catch. At some point, you will have to “close” your own loop, that is, assassinate your future self. As one looper says, it’s not a profession for people with a lot of foresight.
Joe (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) is one such short-sighted person. Week in and week out he shows up in a deserted cornfield, waits for his bound and hooded “mark” to materialize, blows the mark away, and collects his blood money, most of which he spends on prostitutes, drugs, and fast cars. Then, one day, the moment he’s been dreading occurs. His future self (Bruce Willis) appears and Young Joe chokes—he “lets his loop run.”
The film’s use of slang is only one of the ways Johnson subtly unmasks how a culture (or here, a subculture) rationalizes evil deeds. Young Joe tells himself that since his victims don’t yet exist in his time, he’s not necessarily committing murder. He’s just cleaning up the future, taking out the garbage. However, when he starts tracking his escaped future self and comes to understand Old Joe’s mission, he comes face to face with the logical and moral consequences of his choices.
It seems, 30 years into the future, just when Old Joe has finally found peace with a loving wife and new baby, the world’s most powerful crime boss decides to close all the loopers’ contracts. When Old Joe’s wife is caught in the crossfire, he heads for the past to stop the chain of events that leads to her death. At least that’s how he explains it, in the most riveting scene in a film filled with riveting scenes, to Young Joe. What he means, Young Joe soon realizes, is that he has a list of children who may grow into that crime boss, and he’s determined to kill every one of them in order to save the future he loves.
It’s important to note that Old Joe doesn’t go back in time to save the lives of others. “Just show me a picture of your wife,” Young Joe demands when he hears his future self’s plan. He then promises he won’t marry the woman, thus saving her life. But Old Joe isn’t interested in this bloodless option. He’d rather keep the future and kill the child.
That said, Old Joe isn’t a heartless man. After removing his first “obstacle,” he breaks down, his body wracked with sobs. But the guilt isn’t enough to stop him from pursuing his goal, and we see, quite clearly, that the drug-addicted Young Joe of the gutter is a better man than the cleaned-up, domestic Old Joe of the future because he recognizes what a lost man he is.
Given that the story is set in an underworld populated with violent men and broken women, it should come as little surprise that their lifestyles garner an R rating. This film about a blood-soaked culture is, itself, soaked in blood, as well as drug use, nudity, and profanity.
But Looper doesn’t glorify the world of outlaws. Johnson paints such a pleasing portrait of the family life Joe could one day have that part of us wants him to get it despite the cost. And when he meets another potential love interest (Emily Blunt), who has herself discarded an old sinful self to take care of her young son, we pray there may be a third way for them all to find joy, peace, and hope.
Looper may not be something Christian moviegoers want to expose themselves to, but it should hearten us to know that young, influential filmmakers like Johnson are wrestling with these questions in such well-done movies and coming to some surprisingly biblical answers.