Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Pierce Gagnon, Jeff Daniels, Noah Segan
Director: Rian Johnson
Runtime: 118 min.
Verdict: While I appreciate Mr. Johnson using concepts and conventions merely as a ruse to construct moral “dilemmas”, I’m not sure of the underlying ethics.
Genre: Thriller, Sci-fi, Drama
The present is 2044, Kansas. The future, only barely shown, is 2074, Shanghai. The present is a depraved land of contradictions, a Blade Runner living right alongside Days of Heaven. It doesn’t seem to add-up, the macro and the micro, the view from far and the view from within. It is all light and poverty, invisible keyboard and a good-old fashioned axe, high-rises and dilapidated structures, and while a man simply shoots a vagrant trying to steal something of his truck, Joe (Mr. Gordon-Levitt), a hired gun, takes the pain of laying down tarpaulin to avoid the mess before disposing the dead body into an incinerator. When the city is all filth and drug, I wonder, why take the pains to leave the farms neat and dry. Maybe it makes sense to keep the workplace clean. And there is his watch. And his worn-out book. And a blunt gun that might as well be the first gun ever invented. And his digitally operated underground cellar-cum-vault where he stores his silver bars. One might suppose Looper considers the total decay of western civilization as we know it, right down to the death of its currency. As in, the rise of Zed (which obviously has Zedong’s face). Or maybe, as we come to meet more of its characters, none of whom seem to be Asian in origin save one crucial woman, I wonder if it is simply a case of the dislocation of the “western” civilization. Recently, we had a little vacation in Kuala Lumpur, and although my opinion here ought to be thoroughly scrutinized, what one feels in the big urban centers of our continent is a distinct lack of personality. We’ve the same model, and Hong Kong could easily double up for Beijing. It is simply vertical growth and urbanization without a sense of history. I watch a Johnnie To production, Motorway, and I realize yet again how adept some of those movies have become in resembling Hollywood productions. Does Hong Kong offer anything other than empty roads for glossy cars to chase through them? In Looper, henchmen wear black overcoats and hats, and for some odd reason the news ticker chooses to show “The Rainmaker” in English, leaving the rest of it in Mandarin. So, is East the new West, populated by the same people? I tend to find that a little hard to digest in a globalized world. Not a deal-breaker though.
What bothers me here is the value of the film’s final act of sacrifice and how it fits into the overall dynamic of the film, and I suppose here is where I ought to WARN YOU ABOUT SPOILERS. I better warn you about sophomoric jabs at Freudian mumbo-jumbo too, and here is where Abe (Mr. Daniels) and Sara (Ms. Blunt) come to the party. There is the big city, a lawless amoral land, ruled by Abe, who is some kind of a patriarchal figure. The city has no principles, no good or no bad, just decay and drugs and sex and technology and money. And there’s the farmland, an anachronism so complete with an axe-wielding woodcutter it almost seems willfully built like the haven in The Village, and it is Sara’s. The mother’s. Probably the only mother in the entire picture. A mother with a gun guarding her innocent child. Or, the innocence of a child. Or, the innocence of childhood. I know you get the picture. There’s Kid Blue (Mr. Segan), a crazy Gat-man (Abe’s henchmen) whose only desire is to find Abe’s validation, which contrasts starkly to Sara’s world, who’s desperately trying to win back her son. Everybody in 2044 Kansas seems to be an orphan, and there seems to be desperate dearth of old people. Save Abe. A kid is almost run over by Joe’s car and we wait for a screaming parent who never appears. Just the abandoned kid in the middle of the road, who seems to be something of a metaphor for the hapless unhinged state of the present. A state, which going by the evidence here, could be explained by the absence of a maternal figure. Or the presence of a paternal figure. Vice-versa for the contrasting farmland, I suppose. I wonder if it is safe to assume Mr. Johnson is in favor of a land without loopers and The Rainmaker and Bruce Willis clones and Bruce Willis shooting down the bad guys. Maybe even Batman and Alfred. You know, the whole orphans and father figure deal. It is a noble thought if you ask me, a land of cultured and domesticated men not seeking replacement for their mothers, standing strongly against the folks from a lot of our movies these days. Renouncing macho bravado and violence, although it gets contradicted a little by the Bruce Willis style shoot-em-all coolness of the final shootout at Abe’s den. Let us overlook that factor though, because Looper is only halfway towards a class of movies I have now come to classify as “The Incredible Hulk” movies, where the darkness of the protagonist’s past kind of unfolds to display his awesomeness, and what is at stake is his overall domestic life. The Taken movies, for example. These movies are inherently patriarchal, seeking validity and at times authority. There’s a righteousness within them that doesn’t bond with me too well, and here in Looper, while Mr. Willis Old Joe, who is the template (considering which actor is imitating whom), takes down scores of Gat-men all over the picture, the young Joe is considerably more uncool. As in, they do not operate as Blondie and William Munny, and Old Joe is given possession of that righteousness, which the film is planning to subvert all along. As in, another paternal figure bites the dust.
I have to admit, I have absolutely no idea why Mr. Johnson is so devoutly against the very idea of patriarchy. He provides me with no evidence, no real emotions, but merely conceptual ones. Looper’s essential dynamics is constructed around archetypical stakes with vague descriptions, otherwise known as clichés, and it is tough to imagine why a good father wouldn’t be borne out of this mess. Is Young Joe, like T-101, so inherently corrupted that there is no way out for a better society than his suicide? Which is what bothers me. The film’s moral dilemma – if you knew who the man who took your wife was and it was you because of which he became the killer, what would you do – is so cut-and-dried it hardly merits any discussion. Especially if the would-be-killer is a little kid. Mr. Johnson’s layout towards the end, especially without a close-up of the Gat-gun until it appears in Old Joe’s hands, and the presence of a blunderbuss, and cornfields, and the principal characters, serves more as a rendition of the concept than as a dramatic situation. Any logical question, like why wouldn’t Sara follow her kid into the cornfields, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Which I can live with. And by my estimate of the narrative it doesn’t matter if Cid eventually becomes the Rainmaker or not, Young Joe’s actions are more out of hope masquerading as a belief in humanity, specifically the maternal aspect of it, than anything else. I mean, it is just about as much of a coin toss as it was when Patrick Kenzie decides what’s good for young Amanda in Gone Baby, Gone. Young Joe’s choice, although an act of sacrifice, is in no way a guarantee of Cid’s future and is more in line with Travis Bickle’s need to be a hero than Patrick’s courageous assumption of responsibility. I mean, does Young Joe’s suicide in anyway have a bearing on the mother’s and the child’s safety? What if the next one in the middle of the night is not a hobo? What happens to Cid’s TK abilities, which if we’re not mistaken, are playing into Magneto’s arguments when we automatically assume them in a negative light? Is it a fear of both evolution and technology? Young Joe’s action doesn’t provide an answer to any of these questions, other than to tell us that it was an act of sacrifice. Which doesn’t exactly convince me. Is it helplessness masquerading as sacrifice, and I wonder what stopped Mr. Johnson from having Young Joe ram Kid Blue’s scooter into Old Joe. I mean, since it is a constructed dynamic, why not have the loop closed and let the boy have a father. If the future could be changed and is a set of infinite possibilities, why not take the responsibility of trying to seek the best one. Why not make the present better? You see, Patrick Kenzie never flinched, stuck to what he believed in, lost everything, and still had the humanity to sit beside little Amanda. That is humanity for me, a supreme act of courage. What Young Joe has done simply absolve himself of any possible culpability.