Time, Fate, and the History of the Future in “Looper”

You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.

Time travel has not yet been invented but 30 years from now, it will have been. I am one of many specialized assassins in our present called loopers. So when criminal organizations in the future need someone gone, they zap them back to me and I eliminate the target from the future. Loopers are well paid. We live the good life and the only rule is never let your target escape, even if your target is you.

My furtive love for the dystopian sci-fi genre is no secret to regular readers of ToM.  Children of Men is, to me, the superlative example of how to explore contemporary social issues and cultural anxieties by telling stories about the near future in recent film.  Take Shelter, Melancholia, and numerous other works have contributed to this vein of filmmaking, even if they do not push the premise or scenario out very far into the future.  Still, the fundamental questions that great science fiction poses—who are we, and who would we be in the event of drastically different, often catastrophic circumstances—are present in these films and many other, widely varying works, from LOST to Battlestar Galactica.

The new film Looper, by the wunderkind director of the much-loved indie gem Brick, Rian Johnson, addresses many of the classic themes of science fiction: fate, time travel, social injustice, and the role of the individual in the face of great, grinding processes of politics and technology.  Like the classic characters in film noir and crime drama—think of Sterling Hayden in Kubrick’s early film The Killing, or Leonard DiCaprio in The Departed—the characters in Looper find themselves nearly outmatched by forces of bureaucracy, technology, organized crime, and even time itself.  Can one person matter?  Are the fates of people and societies “overdetermined,” as historians might put it, by structures of power and privilege that make only certain outcomes possible, regardless of what anyone does?

The contradictory premise of Looper does not help much in answering these questions, as even the most cursory inspection of the film’s plot results in dumbfoundment.   The writer/director actually dismisses such qualms in his own script, having characters editorialize that “I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws” and “This time travel crap just fries your brain like an egg.”  Message: don’t worry about it.  Just follow along and enjoy the dramatic and ethical dilemmas that arise, without worrying about the mechanics of time travel and causation.

It is a bold gambit on the part of Johnson, admitting, in effect, this won’t add up—it never does.  But let me try out these dramatic scenarios on you, in a future (Kansas in the year 2044) that has a future of its own (2074), where time travel exists.  In essence, America in 2044 is a kind-of, sort-of wasteland riddled by widespread poverty and drug addiction—seemingly symptoms of an economic crash—though some manage to make a decent living amid tent cities and vagrancy.  An unnamed metropolis has emerged in the cornfields of Kansas, and it is home to the protagonist, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).  He is a ragamuffin who was sold into slavery by his junkie mother as a baby, and who only escaped by being offered a job as a “looper” by avuncular crime boss Abe (Jeff Daniels).

He subsequently lives a life of sex, drugs, and relative comfort—except for the dull, quotidian work of executing and dumping the bodies of mob victims exported from the future.  In 2074, it seems, time travel has been invented but is immediately outlawed. However, some criminal syndicates use the technology as a means of disposing of the bodies of their victims, which has become exceedingly difficult in the future due to (never explained) tracking technologies that make it almost impossible to get rid of a corpse without someone finding it.  Apart from standard time travel mumbo jumbo about fate and causation, this is by far the biggest, most gaping plot hole of the entire movie—humankind finds a way to manipulate time, and all they use it for is garbage disposal? The past is useful only as a dumping ground for people who run awry of organized crime?  No corporate espionage?  No fixing bets a la Back to the Future II? The basic premise is beyond ludicrous, in a way that makes it difficult for the viewer not to question the entire drama that unfolds based on these simple rules set out at the beginning.

Indeed,  the catch for “loopers” like Joe, who have the job of shooting and disposing of the hooded victims who are transported from the future to the present (2044), is that they themselves must agree to be executed at some point in the distant future.  This is “closing the loop”—in exchange for a lot of money, the loopers do the mob’s dirty work, but they ultimately must assent in tying up the “loose ends” that they constitute, agreeing to an arbitrary and capricious death a few decades down the road. Everyone has to die, right?  Might as well make a lot of money and worry about it later—as Gordon-Levitt’s character puts it, the guys who take this job are not the most forward-looking people.

Why it is particularly necessary to do away with these rather ordinary hitmen, the loopers, is never really explained in the film, but this bargain between the looper and the mob is the entire basis for the movie’s dramatic conflict.  In essence, the loopers must kill themselves—at some point, their future selves are the ones who will be transported back to close the loop, and they have to deal with the bizarre implications of terminating their own lives.  If Camus said that “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide,” then Looper turns this question entirely on its head.  The main character, Joe, finds that he is knocked out by his wily future self (Bruce Willis), when he is transported to the past (again, 2044) to be executed.  In the world of Looper, a hitman losing his prey and letting a person from the future run loose in the present/past is a deadly offense worthy of the most gruesome and horrific punishment.  (Indeed, a scene early in the film, when a current looper is punished for letting his future self go, is among the most disturbing and unsettling scenes I’ve seen on the screen for a while.  This series of events establishes early on that Joe himself is single-minded and ruthless, prepared to betray even his best friend and determined to track down and kill his future self to preserve his interests in the here and now.)

In any case, the story of Looper unfolds as an epic mashup of The Terminator, Omen, High Noon, Blade Runner, Die Hard, and Primer, a sort of sci-fi/Western/noir.  It has the ominous mood of Terminator 2, anticipating a horrible cataclysm to come (although the plotline of Joe’s future self coming back to kill a John Connor-like child takes a rather different turn).  It explores the hoary old question of whether it would be right to travel back in time and assassinate Hitler if one had the chance—if you could kill Hitler in 1933 and prevent the Holocaust, that might make sense.  But what if you went back to 1895 and killed the German dictator as a child?  Shooting a kid in the face seems like an inconceivable act even if you know that individual will grow up to authorize the genocidal killing of millions.  Yet this is the problem that Looper poses, as the future Joe is determined to do whatever it takes, no matter how horrible, to prevent future atrocities from occurring, while current Joe tries to save his own hide by getting rid of his older self.

The end result is a classic cinematic cat-and-mouse game, except that one man is both cat and mouse—a high-concept premise that plays with time and identity in much the same way as Memento and Inception.  But the film does more than spool out a very clever, mind-bending, postmodern plot set-up.  Like fantasy scenarios from Jonathan Swift to Kurt Vonnegut, Looper has a deep undercurrent of doleful satire.  What does it mean about personal responsibility, freedom, agency, and morality when a young man becomes a cold-blooded killer, willingly mortgaging his own life in the long run, in order to have some semblance of security in a deeply unequal, impoverished society?  In the movie, the future Joe (Bruce Willis) is angry and determined to avenge the loss he felt when his past commitment (to be executed as a looper) finally came due—a deal he “willingly” made, all those 50 or so years earlier when he was a desperate vagabond kid, enslaved to a gang, who was picked up by Jeff Daniels’s crime boss character and offered the chance of a lifetime (to become an assassin and ultimately be assassinated).

The sense of vicious cruelty and injustice that the older Joe seems to feel drives him to commit horrific acts as he returns to 2044 and goes on his bloody, homidical mission, and the younger Joe wonders how it all came to this.  What is his responsibility?  He did decide to take this offer and sign off on his eventual death, in exchange for comfort and success in the meantime—a way of framing how our choices determine our fate in deadly literal terms. (If you smoke every day, you will find you were killing yourself when lung cancer eventually arrives, while Joe and the others looper are required to be the direct authors of their own demise.)  Joe’s future self is coming back and doing awful things, in a misguided quest to the change the future and prevent the horrible consequences of his agreeing to become a looper. Not pursuing this path of murder and privilege would likely mean begging in the street along with all the other contemptible vagrants of this Kansan metropolis.

In this way, Joe’s character echoed the child who would later become Matt Damon in the opening minutes of The Departed.  The kind of lost, unfortunate, mixed-up kid whose life can be sold away for a bologna sandwich—Damon’s character becomes enthralled to Jack Nicholson’s sociopathic crime boss for a pittance, just as Joe must accept the savage consequences of his implication with the heartless mafia don Abe and his transtemporal killing machine.  ToM editor Ryan Reft noted that, despite the film’s moralizing subtext about bad parenting and disintegrating families causing social decline, it actually departs from much popular culture of the last 20 or 30 years by not emphasizing the impact of missing fathers.  Daddy issues and absent or uninvolved fathers have been the fulcrum of many narratives about damaged individuals struggling in an alienated modern society (e.g. LOST, the films of Wes Anderson, etc.).  Yet in Looper fathers figure very little, whether absent or not.  It’s true that Abe functions as a sort of paternal character, and even the conflict between present and future Joe has a touch of father-son struggle.  But the central issue in Looper is the missing mother—the party girl who neglects her son, filling him with rage; the junkie who throws her child on the tender mercies of a violent urban underworld; all hedonists who fail to give their children the nurturing and sense of purpose necessary to survive an increasingly ugly world. Looper retains an arguably conservative cultural subtext about family life and motherhood that resembles that of Children of Men, even if Johnson’s time travel film offers a more hopeful message that individual agency and human compassion can alter the course of history, in spite of deep structural forces—poverty, class, genetics—that may seem to determine one’s fate.

I’ll raise him good

Anyone can make a mistake, especially when young, scared, and defenseless, that leads to a spiralling series of consequences that leave one vulnerable and dependent on the caprice of unkind men. When Joe realizes he has lost his assigned prey—himself—he instantly intuits he is outside of a society, a hunted animal who’s forever one second away from being found.  He is thin, as vaporous and contingent as the paper-like holographic phone he smashes against the rocks to kill his trail.  In the brutal world of future metropolitan Kansas, he is a flimsy something about to be destroyed—to the mobsters who will stop at nothing to find him, and the police who are either complicit or indifferent, he is a no-one, despite all the money, technology, and status he had the day before.

Like the character in the Bob Dylan song, he was “invisible now,” with “no secrets to conceal.”  The ambiguity of those words has always been about the difference between translucence (being exposed, revealed) and invisibility (being made ineffectual, irrelevant).  Joe’s predicament speaks to both readings.  All his secrets could be revealed in a flash, in a few minutes of torture—without the protective sheen of money and power, he was laid bare. Or perhaps he has been exposed because his future self, who really is him in a real sense, is out in the world doing terrible things, and he is almost powerless to stop it.  That’s me.  I’m doing those things. In the end, he is like the character in “Like a Rolling Stone”—someone who is vulnerable, see-through, suddenly stripped of every kind of status or protection that could shield him from close inspection.

Even if the time-travel/causality issues in the film did not quite make sense, the basic question of whether one has the power to influence one’s own future remained powerful.  Must a child grow up to be a monster, just because one storyline shows that to be the case?  Must one man grow old to be a remorseless killer, despite his current self’s yearning to be more empathetic, compassionate, and responsible?  The question of whether decent people of good faith can overcome the intervening challenges of violence, bad luck, and injustice to change their own fates remains at the center of Looper, a question the film ultimately appears to answer in a resounding affirmation of individual agency.  Whatever scientific gobbledygook was necessary to get to this question, the ethical issues involved are not too different from those in cultural touchstones ranging from Oedipus to Hamlet to High Noon.