A lone man is sitting in an open field. Before him lies a white tarpaulin. While listening to headphones and practicing French, he keeps checking his antique pocket watch. After a few moments, he checks his watch one last time, stands, and aims his shotgun before him at waist-level. Instantly, out of nowhere, a kneeling man appears before him on the tarp, bound and hooded. He shoots him dead.
Time travel, he narrates, has not been invented yet. But in 30 years, it will have been.
So starts this post-apocalyptic, future-based, sci-fi thriller. Whew – that’s a lot of hyphens.
I decided to review this movie because it’s one of the best I’ve seen in a long, long time. But it’s not without a few glaring imperfections.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson, this movie stars Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Emily Blunt. It is set in Kansas, year 2044. Signs of a previous economic collapse are everywhere, but it doesn’t go overboard focusing on this fact in the way the abysmally depressing movie “The Road” did. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a character named, appropriately, Joe. He works in 2044 as an assassin for crime bosses who live 30 years in the future. Because of technological body-tagging and the difficulty of disposing of bodies in the year 2074, they utilize recently discovered (and quickly outlawed) time travel technology to “zap” bodies back in time where they can be dispatched and incinerated – bodies which, at least in that prior time, don’t exist. In return the assassins receive two silver bars per job, which the crime bosses strap to the backs of their victims.
A looper’s life quickly devolves into an endless, empty cycle of blowing away marks, collecting their silver payments, hitting up with eye-drop narcotics before partying hard, then doing it all over again. Eventually though, a looper will discover a large gold payout attached to the back of the mark they’ve just killed, indicating that they have just “closed their loop.” This means that they’ve just killed their older, future self, and can now take that golden umbrella and live comfortably for the next thirty years, until, apparently, they are sent back to be killed by themselves again, which would technically mean that they never closed their loop. Sigh. Here is where we encounter the biggest, smelliest Stanley Steamer that Johnson plops into this otherwise intelligent and thought-provoking film. More on that later.
For now, lets continue with young Joe. With unassailable deadpan style and a face reminiscent of De Niro (check out the desk scene between Joe and the Gat Men’s boss Abe), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (seriously… a man with a hyphenated name?) delivers this role with acumen. He has a hard job in this movie. It’s not easy to play a character that has little moral integrity and still maintain a viewer’s investment. But he does just that (plus he redeems himself at the end). He kills strangers for a living, a good living, in a time when most people are living as scavengers. He rats out his best friend and fellow assassin Seth to protect his stash of silver (Judas anyone?). And, he argues against his future self in a diner, saying “I can’t let you walk away from this diner alive. This is my life now. You had yours already, so why don’t you do what old men do, and die!” Nice, right?
Here’s a guy that cannot even befriend himself. Ah well, many of us suffer the same imperfection, and maybe that’s why we can forgive him.
When he meets old Joe (Willis), he pauses because old Joe’s hood is not on when he appears. They look into each other’s eyes, then old Joe turns around before taking the shotgun blast into the gold bars on his back, saving him. Before young Joe can reload, old Joe knocks him out and steals his truck, leaving a note with his younger self to get out of the city, to run. But young Joe is, well, young, not to mention naive, and so he doesn’t run. He goes straight back to his apartment, where an altercation takes place with the Gat Men looking for him because he did what is called “letting your looper run.” That’s a big no-no in looper land, apparently.
That’s what Joe’s friend Seth did. Although his looper (himself) was hooded when he appeared, he was singing the song his mother used to sing to comfort him as a child. He unmasked his older self, who told him about a new crime boss in the future, called the Rainmaker, a mysterious figure who was taking over all the regional cities and closing all the loops. That news will become important later.
Anyway, as young Joe is trying to evade the Gat Men sent to his apartment to kill him and is hanging from the fire escape, his handhold slips and he falls. Fade to black.
Cut to the field. Same field as before, only this time, when old Joe appears, he is head-sacked and young Joe promptly blows him to kingdom come. Then he finds the gold, and realizes he just killed his old-man self. He shrugs it off, grabs the gold, and then the film begins an annotated sequence documenting the next thirty years of his life. He goes to Asia, spends down all of his gold and silver, then takes up working as an assassin again before suddenly turning into Bruce Willis (with really bad hair), and meeting the Asian woman of his dreams, who cleans him up, gets him off drugs, and makes a decent human being out of him (finally!).
Okay – so I ask you Rian Johnson: what time is this? This scene that you cut to after the fire escape scene?
As far as I can discern, this scene is in the past, when young Joe supposedly closed his loop the first time (which of course he didn’t, as discussed before – actually it’s the crime syndicate’s fault – they keep sending their loopers back in time after the loop was supposedly closed – duh). So, when watching the movie from the start, we are assuming that we are watching young Joe’s first time to encounter himself, but apparently we are not – it’s the second time, because after old Joe comes back, he is coming back from the life experience we watch unfold after the scene cuts from young Joe’s fall from the fire escape back to the field, where he actually kills his old self, then goes on to live the life the movie portrays in Asia. Thoroughly confused yet? Bear with me – technical details like this matter with sci-fi.
So the first scene is old Joe’s second “loop,” the second scene the first. Gee, thanks Johnson. As if the concept of time travel weren’t confusing enough. Plop. Big Stanley Steamer.
As far as I can tell, there is only ever one young Joe. The loop starts when an older self is sent back in time and two are in the same time simultaneously, and that loop is either continued or closed. In the first go around, young Joe kills old Joe, then sets out to live his life in Asia. Then he gets apprehended by the henchmen of the Rainmaker, taken to the time machine, whereby he overtakes his handlers, and sends himself back in time to the field (the first field scene shown). Why does he send himself back? Because the henchmen killed his wife when they apprehended him, and he wants to go back in time and kill the Rainmaker as a child, thereby changing the future and saving his wife. And herein lies another big pooper that Johnson never addresses: since there is no time machine in 2044 with which to send himself back again to the future and live with his wife, then what is the point of it all? Oh, the humanity!!
If Johnson wanted to avoid confusion, which he clearly did not, then he just would have had an assassin experience one loop, get killed by himself in the past, then the original assassin in the past would just live out the rest of that life to die at some point IN THE FUTURE! But alas, that would be far too simple. And clear. Or, to make it even clearer, never have the assassins loop themselves in the first place. No need. But then you wouldn’t have the fantastic scene at the diner, where old Joe and young Joe sit down and have a heart to heart chat, or scolding, as was the case in this movie. And you wouldn’t have the final, amazing scene at the end, either.
Speaking of the diner scene: I know that Johnson was aware of these glaring inconsistencies as he spoke through the character of old Joe, when he says “I don’t want to talk about time travel shit, because if we start talkin’ about it then we’re gonna be here all day talkin’ about it, making diagrams with straws.” Then, when pressed on the issue of time travel by young Joe, he slams his fist down onto the table and yells “It doesn’t matter!” Oh yes it does, Mr. Johnson. It does matter. Sometimes writing requires mental effort. Go figure.
Alright – this review has become as confusing as Johnson’s take on time travel. The second half will have to wait until the next post!