I love time travel stories and, since Inception, I've been enjoying Joseph Gordon-Levitt's emergence as a leading man, feeling as if I've "known" him since he was a boy on 3rd Rock from the Sun. Add Bruce Willis dying hard and the Looper cast easily makes you buy a movie ticket. While the film doesn't exactly disappoint, I guess the most I can say is that it was "pretty ok."
JG-L plays Joe, a man living in a future world (in 2044) who makes his living as a "looper" a person who kills people sent from an even more future world (2074). Time travel doesn't exist in Joe's present, but it will be invented in 30 years. It's illegalized, but criminals still use it to dispose of their victims. Decades from now, technology will make dead bodies impossible to dispose of, so bad guys tie their targets up, put a hood over their head, tape money (as payment to the looper assassin) to their backs and dispatch them 30 years into the past at an appointed time where loopers, like Joe, are waiting to kill them instantly, as soon as they are transported. Joe then dumps the body in his world and the victim, now corpse, is erased from the future, as if he never existed.
Looping pays well. The only draw back is that the bad guys in 2074 don't want to get caught, so they haunt old loopers down and send the loopers themselves back into the past, 2044, to be killed by . . . loopers. That's how you "close the loop." Joe realizes the irony of this arrangement and acknowledges that loopers don't think for the "long term." If you are a looper who lives 30 more years, then you know that you will be hunted down and murdered by your own kind or, worse, by yourself.
Joe's best friend Seth, another looper, gets a job assignment. He shows up at the appointed place to kill a man sent back from 2074 only to find out (by the song that the man is singing, a song Seth's mother sang to him, that the victim is Seth himself. Seth's job is to kill himself (albeit a 30 years older version). Seth can't do it. He lets himself run away and that is a no-no. Present day Seth must be killed for letting his victim from 2074 escape. From a plot perspective, one big problem with this set up is you have to wonder why the people from the future didn't make sure that the old loopers they send back to have murdered aren't scheduled to be murdered by themselves. If you didn't want the hit to go awry, you'd take pains to make sure the killer has no emotional ties to his victim, let alone ensure that the killer and victim were not one and the same person.
Joe has been saving up his money. He plans to retire early, leave the business and move to France. When Seth goes on the run and shows up at Joe's place begging his friend to hide him from the Looper boss, Abe, who needs him dead, Joe wishes that he had never been involved. He cares for his friend, but cares more about his self-preservation. He reluctantly hides Seth under a floor board at his apartment, then Abe's goons show up and take Joe in to be interrogated by the boss. Abe's manner is avuncular rather than threatening. He tells Joe he remembers recruiting him as a boy. Joe was a homeless kid who'd lost his mother. Abe found him, gave him a gun and taught him how to support himself by looping. Murdering. Because he's known him so long, Abe has a soft spot for Joe. He gives Joe a choice, either give up half the money he has saved for retirement OR give up Seth. Joe is torn. Abe finds that predictable. He says it's a question we all face: how much will we sacrifice to save what is ours? Joe decides to sacrifice Seth. To keep all of his money and to secure his own future, he tells Abe where Seth is.
Joe asks if Abe is going to murder Seth. One wonders if Joe's choice would have been different if the answer had been yes. If he'd known Seth's reckoning would be a violent one, would he have chosen to give up half his fortune instead? Abe casually answers that they won't kill Seth, because that would alter the future too much. Instead, Abe mutilates present day Seth, which debilitates Old Seth (from 2074 whom young Seth allowed to escape). As Old Seth is running away, he suddenly loses his hands, arms, feet, nose. All nubs, he can't keep running and Old Seth is, literally, stopped in his tracks and killed by Abe's men, while present day Seth lies whimpering, bloody and butchered on the mutilating surgeon's table.
To take the edge off of his guilt, Seth goes to his favorite prostitute. He doesn't want sex. He wants her to stroke his hair, the way his mother used to do before he lost her.
Square with Abe, Joe keeps working. He shows up for a job assignment and awaits, gun in hand, for his victim from 2074 to show up so he can kill him. The guy is late and doesn't appear at the appointed time. Joe starts to get suspicious. When the target finally materializes in the past, Joe's present, he is not wearing a hood. Instead unmasked, the victim is able to look Joe squarely in the eye. Peering into the man's eyes, Joe recognizes himself. He's not going to be like Seth. He plans to kill the future him, Old Joe. But Old Joe is tough. He moved to Shanghai (because in 2044 he was expected to move to France by everyone he knew. By doing the unexpected, he thinks that he can elude his inevitable death easier in China), became an even more accomplished murderer, blowing away present day human beings and not just strangers from an unknown future; and grew into 2074's grizzled Old Joe. Sharp, a bound Old Joe uses Young Joe's slight hesitation to get the jump on his younger self and escape.
As soon as Abe learns that another loop is on the run, he sends his goons after Joe. Abe needs to have both old Joe and young Joe eliminated. The twist is, Joe wants future Joe killed almost as much as Abe does.
So Old Joe is not only running from Abe, but from his own past. Old Joe has a plan. The man in 2074 who is having former loopers sent back in time to be killed is called The Rainmaker (the person who pays loopers salaries by giving them someone to kill). No one knows Rainmaker's true identity, but Old Joe feels that while he's back in time, if he can find The Rainmaker and dispose of him, then he can save his own life, because no one will be around to put a hit on him.
Joe meets up with Old Joe by cutting a waitress' name, Beatrix, into his own arm. When the resulting scar immediately shows up on Old Joe's body, Old Joe remembers where Beatrix worked and knows that's where the young Joe wants to meet up. He goes there and, in one of the few laughs in the movie, reminds young Joe that they know another waitress, Jen. Since her name was shorter, it would have been a lot less painful if Young Joe had carved that name into his skin, rather than Beatrix's.
Old Joe tells the Young one that they have a lot to live for. They will meet a beautiful woman who helps Old Joe clean up his life and finally find peace and happiness. When he is rounded up 30 years from now, to be sent back in the past to his death, his attackers kill his wife in the process. Old Joe pleads with Young Joe that he has to change the future in order to save his future wife, the woman who gives him so much. He tells Young Joe about the Rainmaker. If they find the Rainmaker, a merciless looper assassin in 2074, but still a kid in Young Joe's world, they can erase him before he ever grows up to kill loopers. If they vanquish the Rainmaker now, Old Joe and his wife can live and grow old together, unthreatened, in 2074.
Young Joe is apathetic. He has to live for himself. For the life he has NOW. Old Joe has already lived those 30 years and Young Joe hasn't enjoyed them yet. Young Joe feels that Old Joe should just die quietly, so that Young Joe doesn't lose everything he has. Maybe if Old Joe is killed now, Abe will forgive Young Joe for letting his target, his loop, run in the first place. If Young Joe could just make Old Joe disappear, his own life can be saved -- at least for 30 years.
Old Joe refuses to go easily into that good night. After a violent shoot 'em up in a restaurant that is suddenly empty (somehow Beatrix the waitress has completely disappeared), Old Joe runs off and Young Joe, pursued by Abe's goons, does too.
Since Young and Old Joe are one in the same, one might wonder why Old Joe doesn't know what Young Joe and everyone else in that world will do, minute by minute. He's from the future. It's all happened already and if Old Joe knows his history, then knowledge of everything that will happen should be laid out in his brain like a map. The writers circumvent this dilemma by having Old Joe explain that his memory is (conveniently) foggy. Alternate scenarios float by in his mind, versions of what could happen, and there are so many of them that they create a swirl of confusion. He only knows what Young Joe will do after it has been done. He can't remember what happened in the past independently, even though he's 30 years ahead of the present, but once it happens, then Old Joe will remember it. Clear as mud. This plot device not only creates a fog for Old Joe, but for the audience too. There are a couple of scenes in which events appear to occur but, apparently, didn't. For instance, Young Joe relives the hit on Old Joe and it goes off without a hitch. Old Joe shows up in the past with a hood on and Young Joe kills him sight unseen. It's not until after he's dead that Young Joe realizes he's just killed himself. It's not clear in what alternate universe this has happened.
In another scene Old Joe wakes up in bed with his wife and a baby seems to be crying in the background. The child they always wanted appears to have been born. Does this mean that Old Joe has succeeded in his mission to kill the Rainmaker and won't be hounded in 2074 after all? Who knows. While those 2 things are seen on screen, they don't actually occur in the movie's reality and we don't know why or how we are seeing them imagined as a parallel reality.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Young Joe follows a lead he received in a map from 2074 and goes to an isolated farm, inhabited by a single mother and her young son. Joe discovers that the boy, Cid, is one of three kids born on the same day at the same hospital. One of these 3 children is The Rainmaker, but Joe (neither old or young) doesn't know which one. So, Old Joe sets out to kill all 3 kids. He gets to the other two possible Rainmakers first. The children are barely more than toddlers. He kills the first. The second one belongs to someone he knows. The prostitute he cared about, the one he went to for comfort, whom he asked to run her fingers through his hair, like his mother did. He apologizes before killing her child.
At the farm, Young Joe somehow knows the progress Old Joe has made. Psychic connection? They have a bond sure, but the way Old Joe explained it, he knows what Young Joe will do after it's done, not the other way around. So, it's not clear how Young Joe knew when Old Joe had dispatched the first two potential rainmakers, but he does. Cid is a child prodigy, perfectly acted by Pierce Gagnon. Gagnon's true life age is fuzzy. IMDB lists him as 5-8 years old. But he's dimunitive and Cid seems to be about 4. He dissolves quickly from angry and defiant to a scared and needing little boy in a manner that is so natural and believable that an Oscar nomination for the child actor would not be at all amiss. With his preternatural intelligence and high voice, Cid could be mistaken as your typical creepy movie demon child, especially once we find that he has strong and deadly telekinectic powers that give him the mental strength to create a windy maelstrom, powerful enough to destroy everything around him when he gets angry.
This omnipotence feels like a plot cheat. Although, when narrating the story at the beginning, Young Joe mentions that 10% of the population mysteriously acquired kinectic powers, he says that they didn't live up to expectations. The only thing people could do with them was levitate coins. Then, the powers were never mentioned again, until Cid started psychically throwing things around. If this ability is going to be a chief story point, if it is what gives Cid the power to grow up and be a one-man army, The Rainmaker, then we should know the origins of the strange powers and be given a facile explanation of why Cid's are so much stronger than anyone else's.
Baby Cid can't control his powers yet, they flair up uncontrollably, but Young Joe realizes that when Cid grows older and learns how to guide them, the deadly Rainmaker will be realized. He wants to kill the child and save the world (at least the world of future loopers with a target on their heads), but when he looks at the innocent Cid before him, he realizes that whatever the child might do in the future does not justify violence against the frightened tot today.
Cid's mother Sara abandoned him. Went away for 2 years and let her sister raise him, while she partied on the streets. She tells Joe that she ran into a lot of aimless, lost men out there and it made her realize that if she raised Cid herself and didn't leave him motherless that he didn't have to grow up to be one of them. Needless to say, Joe sees himself in the boy. What would he have grown up to be, if he hadn't lost his own mother. Would he have grown into the man who killed for a living and sacrificed his best friend, Seth, for money? The same Seth who grew to middle-age still singing the song that his mother had sung before leaving him? Young Joe doesn't like who he is now. How will he feel about the man, the child killer, he'll be in 30 years? He helps Sara and Cid go on the run.
Old Joe comes after them. As Old Joe chases Cid, the Rainmaker, determined to kill him before he grows into a man that will threaten Old Joe's future, Young Joe knows (sees) how it will all play out. Sara will die at Old Joe's hands. Cid will escape, but having seen his mother murdered by a looper, he will grow up to be a vengeful looper killer. One motherless boy kills another. One motherless boy creates another. What's Young Joe's response to this alternate vision, this possible future? He changes it.
He turns the gun on himself. He kills Young Joe, so that Old Joe will never exist, which is truly closing the loop.
Why didn't he just kill Old Joe? That would have been enough to save the Rainmaker's life. But not enough to save all the lives Old Joe has taken in the preceding (um, succeeding? proceeding? intervening?) 30 years, from 2044-2074.
When they met in Beatrix's diner and Old Joe asked Young Joe to save his wife's life, to alter the future so that the woman who he will one day love so much can live, Young Joe answers by saying, "Show me her picture. Let me see what she looks like, so I will know to avoid her. That way, I'll never marry her and I WILL save her life." Old Joe won't go for it. He wants his wife to live, but not at the expense of losing her in another way. Rather than to give up his chance to be with her, he'd rather kill everyone who might be a threat to her over the next 30 years. He ends up doing just that, killing Abe, all the loopers, two potential Rainmakers. Everyone except Young Joe and Cid.
For Young Joe, it all came down to what Abe asked: how much are you willing to sacrifice to preserve what's yours? Young Joe had made murder a career for some time, but he wasn't plagued by guilt until he sacrificed Seth to keep the money he'd saved (not that I believe Abe would have let Seth go free, even if Young Joe had agreed to forfeit half of his money and relinquish his dreams of an early retirement in France). Finally, he looked at Old Joe, saw himself 30 years hence and realized that he'd extinguish a lot of other lives for his own selfish "happiness" every additional year that he lived. So, he made the choice to stop living.
I like the way the morality lesson unfolded through Seth's death and the string of motherless characters who all tie together. A string that Young Joe cuts. He decides to end the cycle. It's an interesting slant on guilt. Young Joe doesn't want Cid or Sara to die, but sentiment aside, he really kills himself to . . . save himself. He makes the choice to stop taking in order to keep, while he still can, because that's something he saw Old Joe would never do.