Why Rian Johnson's "Looper" Is Really A Subversive Anti-Violence Film
Note: This article was originally published at Film School Rejects.
“I don’t want to talk about time travel,” says Bruce Willis to Joseph Gordon-Levittin 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.”****
Johnson’s critique is even embedded in the way the film is shot and edited. The violence occurring around Joe is brutal and graphic; limbs are cut off, faces are disfigured and blood spurts from every gunshot wound. But when Old Joe (played by an actor known for roles in which he righteously eliminates evildoers) goes on a rampage in the film’s second half, it’s an over-the-top and cartoonish sequence. Much of the violence occurs off-screen, and what does make it onscreen casually depicts body after body being gunned down ‐ one kill even seems designed to play for laughs, when a single gunman runs straight into a flurry of bullets. The contrast is striking: a new action star depicted with a more realistic and ethical philosophy of violence fighting an elderly blockbuster hero whose violence only leads to more violence. There’s a line in the sand there: you can either depict violence in the traditional Hollywood formula, which helps sustain our most destructive cultural myth, or you can take a stand and try something new.
It’s worth pointing out that these ideas were already well-articulated earlier this year in Drew Goddard’s fantastic horror romp The Cabin in the Woods, which also related modern-day violence in entertainment to ancient religious rites. What makes Looper even more layered is that it simultaneously critiques Hollywood’s other big lie: that a morally gray anti-hero can be redeemed by love or money. Think, for example, of the plethora of movies about murderers and thugs who leave their life of crime after they meet a beautiful woman (and a climactic gunfight, of course). Or those in which the protagonist just has to do “one last job” so he can retire and live the remainder of his life on the beach guilt-free. If we’re to believe the movies, it’s possible to simply quit a life of violence and ride off into the sunset, past sins forgotten (or at the very least, ignored).
Looper exposes that cliché for what it is: a fantasy that will never come true for us no matter how many times it does for our big-screen heroes.
Old Joe is fighting for an idealized Hollywood version of life, one in which all the drugs, philandering and murder are forgotten once he meets his manic pixie dream girl. That’s normally how a typical Hollywood action film would end. But not Looper. Within the first half hour of the film, Johnson strips the fantasy away and Old Joe is left with nothing but dead bodies and a time machine. Meanwhile, thirty years earlier, Joe sells out his best friend Seth in order to keep the money that he thinks will help him leave his life of crime. But this turns out to be for nothing ‐ in one timeline, the money quickly runs out, and in another, he’s unable to use it to buy off one of Abe’s Gat Men. He’s trapped in a pattern outside his control, and the money won’t do him any good.
So much for a Hollywood ending.
In Looper’s worldview, it’s impossible to escape the cycle of violence unscathed. All actions have consequences, and a pretty girl and a mountain of cash won’t change that. The pain inflicted never fully goes away. It just burns, deep down inside, until one day it bubbles up into an act of reciprocated violence, and the cycle repeats. We see this echoed throughout history. Resentment in Germany after World War One leads to the rise of the Nazis and an even bloodier conflict. A suicide bombing in Israel is answered by one in Palestine. A terrorist attack inspires war, massive bombings and an eventual assassination. John McClane kills the bad guys, and they strike back in sequel after sequel.
Old Joe wants to kill Cid because he believes that will save his wife. The Rainmaker (aka Old Cid) accidentally kills a lot of people after seeing his mother murdered. Meanwhile, regular Joe just wants to kill Old Joe because he thinks that in doing so he’ll save himself. They’ve all bought into the same lie, that violence arising from noble intentions can heal past traumas, and in doing so they’re damned to repeat the same cycle of destruction over and over. But they’re not completely lost. Johnson argues that there are two ways in which the cycle can be stopped and order can actually be restored: nurturing love and forgiveness (personified by Sara) and a refusal to respond to violence with more violence, even if doing so results in death.
Looper recognizes that violence has become part of our cultural DNA, echoing throughout history from generation to generation. If the character of Joe is the personification of our present ‐ an entity trapped in a cycle of violence and unable to escape ‐ the character of Cid is the embodiment of our possible future. His telekinetic powers (which really are just a fantastical stand-in for other more normal talents) could be used for great good or for great evil, and whether he becomes the next Steve Jobs or the next Hitler depends largely on whether he’s infected by the cycle of violence at a young age. He is raw potential, still learning how to channel his talents into something constructive, and as a result he’s capable of massive destruction at the slightest provocation, but Sara ‐ or more precisely, her maternal love and understanding ‐ can help him.
Joe grew up without that love and was socialized into a life of violence at a young age, so there’s no escape for him. But Cid is not a lost cause. The climactic moment of the film arrives when Joe realizes that he’ll never be able to change and fully “get clean,” so to speak. Even though he thinks he was saved by a woman’s love, Old Joe hasn’t changed at all, and he’s still trying to solve everything with more violence. It may be too late for Joe to escape the cycle, but there’s still time to stop the sickness at the source and keep it from spreading to other people, so he does what he has to do, killing himself to prevent future acts of retaliation from occurring. A sick body cannot be healed unless the infection is removed, after all.*****
Like Sidney Lumet in Fail-Safe, Johnson argues in Looper that if our actions invite a more terrible reaction, it’s better to punish ourselves so that others won’t have to. Violence can never be redemptive, but self-sacrifice can. While violence is a loop that leads to more violence (Joe’s shooting at Cid eventually leads to the death of his own wife), motherly love and forgiveness are also forces that ripple outward to touch others (in saving Sara, Joe also saves Seth from Cid’s future loop-closing). We can act in ways that will hurt us decades later, or we can make the hard sacrifice now before others get hurt.
Looper isn’t just a lament for our violent world, it’s a call to action. It’s a direct challenge to Hollywood tropes that glorify violence as a righteous endeavor that also practices what it preaches and offers us a better way. If Walter Wink is right, then we’re trapped in millennia-old patterns of self-destruction disguised as salvation, and our movies are both a symptom and a part of the problem. It’s time we asked ourselves if the debate about whether violence in movies causes violence in real life is worth having at all ‐ it doesn’t matter if the chicken or the egg came first if both are poison.
There will always be violence. There will always be pain. But Looper asks us to reconsider our response, so that we might keep ourselves from being the perpetrators of the evils we wish to fight. We’re all like Cid, capable of great kindness and terrible evil, and we’ll all make mistakes. We can respond violently like Joe, and in doing so kill our future selves. Or we can be like Sara, waiting until the storm has passed and then cradling our offenders in our arms with love.
“I’m sorry,” Cid whispers, and it’s true. She forgives him, and it’s implied that in time, he’ll get better. Maybe, with a little work, we can too.
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* As a side note: I think an argument could be made that Looper is very much a political film about the need for wider-reaching gun control laws, but that’s an essay for another time.
** This essay is heavily indebted to Gareth Higgins, who first introduced me to Wink and frequently examines films in the context of the myth of redemptive violence over at The Film Talk.
*** It’s worth noting that loopers’ guns are called “blunderbusses,” which in real life were firearms used heavily during the English Civil War in the 17th Century. Gatling guns, meanwhile, rose to prominence during the American Civil War two hundred years later. This could be a coincidence, or further evidence that slavery to systemic violence (why is Jeff Daniels’ character named after Lincoln?), “brother against brother” and the repetition of past events were concepts that weighed heavily on Johnson’s mind when making the film.
**** Wink, Walter. 2007. “Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence.”
***** Some have pointed out that the ending is ambiguous, and that Joe’s death could actually be the event that inspires Cid to become the Rainmaker. This reading is an even stronger condemnation of any form of violence being used as a response to other violence; even violence against oneself is ineffective at breaking the cycle and causing true change.