Looper last weekend and couldn't sleep after I saw it. Not because it was violent, though it was (more on that shortly), but because I had to keep mulling it over and over. I was still mulling it over the next day, and I'm still turning it over in my mind, asking myself, "Is that really about what I think it was about?" Because if it is, it's a completely different movie from the one I was expecting going in.
I had seen and loved Rian Johnson's first film Brick, which set film noir conventions against a high school angst film to great success. Not a movie for kids, to be sure. But a really interesting film. So I had been looking forward to seeing Looper since it first came out last fall.
I sure am glad I watched it at home, however, as it was so tense I would stop it from time to time, walk around the house a little bit, and tweet about how tense it was (while seeing some calming news about who was tap dancing and/or baton twirling at the Miss America Pageant) before I could continue.
It's very hard to write about this movie without spoilers, but I will try.
The premise is this: Our protagonist, Joe, lives in 2044 Kansas City. He announces as the movie begins that "time travel hasn't been invented yet." But by the 2070's it will be. It's illegal, but crime bosses use it to get rid of people without a trace.
Joe is a Looper, someone who's job is to shoot these people when they are sent back in time and dispose of the body. He's paid in silver bars that are strapped to the back of the person being killed. Since the victim wears a bag over his head (always a he, as far as I saw), he's depersonalized, not someone Joe knows, or even sees for more than a second before shooting him in the chest. Soul-deadening, but lucrative.
There's a catch to this set-up. One time, you will shoot someone, turn him over to get your payment and discover gold bars. This means you have shot your future self and "closed the loop." You cash out with your golden pay day and retire from the business, knowing you have 30 more good years ahead of you to do whatever you want. As our narrator says, "This job does not attract the most forward-thinking people."
Then one day, a man shows up to be shot without the bag on his head, and Joe realizes he's looking at the 30-years-older version of himself. Who escapes. Which means young Joe is in terrible trouble with the local-time representative of the crime syndicate that pays the Loopers. And that's not good.
And that's where I'm stopping with the recap because the rest of the movie confounded my expectations and I want it to confound yours too.
A couple of things: first of all, Jeff Daniels plays the local time crime boss and freaked me out so completely that when I saw him the next day all spiffed up for the Golden Globes for his role as straight-arrow Will McAvoy, I honest to goodness felt scared. That's how good he was. And the reason he was so scary is that he seemed almost kind--so persuasive and reasonable. Such a subtle portrayal of evil, one that looks so nice.
The whole time travel thing is dealt with very adroitly. It raises all the usual questions: can you change the past? If you go back and change the past, how does it change the future? Which of course raises the existential question, how does what we do here and now change what the future will be?
Finally: let's talk violence. Rian Johnson does a very clever thing, here. You see the depersonalized violence of Joe's job and since you don't know these people either, it doesn't matter much. But there is one character you get to know, if only slightly, and terrible things happen to him. But you don't see them directly. And it is horrifying. With an amazing absence of gore, you still get the chills at the horror of what is happening to this character.
But here's the even more important thing: the core thesis of this movie, I would argue, is that violence will not solve your problems. In fact, this movie is a parable for Martin Luther King's argument: "Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." I didn't expect that. At all. This is not a movie that supports the myth of redemptive violence. This is a movie that ultimately stands on the side of self-sacrificing love. I never would have guessed.