Note: The following article assumes that you’ve seen Looper and contains massive spoilers.
“I don’t want to talk about time travel,” says Bruce Willis to Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper. “If we start talking about it, then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws!”
He’s speaking to his younger self at the time, so you’d think the details of how and why would be more important. He’s right, though. When you stop to break it down, there are a few paradoxes and logic gaps in Looper to go around, but director Rian Johnson seems less concerned with making hard sci-fi sense than making a statement.
Looper isn’t a time travel movie as much as it’s a morality play that uses time travel as a tool for social commentary.
My Eye For Your Eye
At first glance, it’s clearly a film about violence, particularly how violence is a cycle that repeats itself throughout history. Johnson and Gordon-Levitt have stated as much in interviews, and the premise – in which assassins’ actions ultimately lead to their own death – is rather didactic. The idea that the violence we inflict on others eventually will be reciprocated in kind is certainly nothing new. Sixty years ago, Gandhi said that an eye for an eye would make the world blind, a sentiment that has staked a claim in cinema even despite mainstream Hollywood’s attempts to ignore it (eye-gouging sells tickets, after all). Last year’s documentary The Interrupters put a pseudo-scientific spin on it, arguing that violence is like a communicable disease that spreads from victim to victim. Hell, Korea even has an entire sub-genre devoted to tortured protagonists trapped in cycles of vengeance. We all know the cycle is real, even if we’re at times hesitant to admit it.
But that’s not the whole story. Looper takes the conversation a step further, daring to argue that pop culture – particularly film – renders us complicit in our own entrapment in the loop of violence. As a result, it’s the most subversive mainstream blockbuster in years, a movie that not only spins a good time travel yarn but challenges traditional Hollywood modes of storytelling, which it calls out as being morally bankrupt and symptomatic of a larger problem.
This summer’s shooting in Aurora, Colorado was the first in a series of tragedies that left us reeling as a nation and reflecting on how to respond to what seems like senseless violence.* We’re still in the middle of a decade-long military conflict in the Middle East that was inspired by a horrific act of terrorism, and last month’s attack at a U.S. embassy in Libya has left our political leaders scrambling to figure out the appropriate response. Culturally speaking, the debate about how to react to violence has arguably never been more at the forefront of the zeitgeist.
Saved By Violence
In Looper, Johnson isn’t just acknowledging the cycle of violence we’re trapped in, he’s interested in exploring why it exists and how it can be ended. Looper’s attitude towards conflict may stem from Gandhi, but it’s closer in spirit to that of theologian Walter Wink, who famously coined the phrase “the myth of redemptive violence.”
According to Wink, cultural attitudes about violence stem from millennia-old creation myths in which the universe is formed by murderous rampages between gods. Modern society is dominated by the belief that violence is a positive force that can be used to bring order out of chaos – our movies, television shows, media, sports, politics and religions perpetuate this belief constantly. Wink argues that this idea is so embedded in our cultural psyche that it is the dominant religion of our time, surpassing all the Abrahamic factions in terms of sheer number of adherents. Violence is viewed as healthy and necessary – while “bad guys” may use it to oppress and destroy, the “good guys” can use it to conquer and save.**
For the film, this worldview is personified in Abe (Jeff Daniels), the leader of the organized crime syndicate that Joe works for. He believes that violence quite literally saved Joe from a terrible life in poverty: “I cleaned you up and put a gun in your hand. Gave you something that was yours.” The irony, of course, is that in helping him “get clean” he enables Joe’s drug addiction and places him in a position that can only lead to what’s essentially a thirty-year-long act of suicide.
Playing Cowboys and Gangsters
Looper doesn’t just question the myth of redemptive violence, it exposes the systemic way in which it spreads through pop culture. It is, in many ways, a movie about movies. The villains in Looper are all modeled on traditional genre archetypes, particularly Westerns and crime films from the 30s and 40s. Mob henchmen are called Gat Men, a reference to the Thompson submachine guns used by the mafia in the Prohibition era, but their weapon of choice tends to be modified revolvers of the Old West – one flashforward even shows them walking around in goofy-looking cowboy hats.***
Noah Segan’s character Kid Blue is named after a comedic Dennis Hopper-starring Western from the 1970s, and he acts like an old-fashioned gunslinger, cockily spinning his Magnum BFR and riding a futuristic hovercraft instead of a horse. At one point Abe chides Joe’s sense of fashion, claiming, “The movies you are dressing like are just copying other movies.” These references are not simply a means of paying homage to cinematic archetypes. Johnson is pointing out that pop culture and real life have a symbiotic relationship.
Joe is quite literally hooked on the myths about violence he’s been socialized into believing, a junkie addicted to a mysterious substance that’s administered through the eyes. His drug habit parallels his (and our) addiction to violence, and his withdrawal as the film progresses is an extension of his growing conscience. It’s important to note that the drug is administered visually.
It’s also important that Joe was the youngest looper Abe ever hired. Wink summed it all up this way:
“From the earliest age, children are awash in depictions of violence as the ultimate solution in human conflicts. And saturation in the myth does not end with the close of adolescence. There is no rite of passage…but rather a years-long acclimatization to adult television and movie fare… The basic structure of the combat myth underlies the pap to which a great many adults turn in order to escape the harsher realities of their everyday lives: spy thrillers, westerns, cop shows, and combat programmes… Redemptive violence gives way to violence as an end in itself [in] a religion in which violence has become the ultimate concern, an elixir, an addictive high, a substitute for relationships.”****