The Importance of Plot – Part 1



An Analysis of Looper

When I heard that the the maker of The Brothers Bloom was making a movie about time travel, with Bruce Willis in it no less, I was expecting great things. I really enjoyed The Brothers Bloom. It was clever, and funny, and charming and meaningful, and did I say clever? I mean, it really surprised me, which is what you want from a caper movie. I just love it when there’s a twist in a movie that manages to change the meaning of everything you’ve seen. I also love time travel movies, the best of which have that same kind of clever twist at the end. 12 Monkeys, Back to the Future and Terminator are among my favorite movies ever. So I was really looking forward to a clever movie that surprised me and made me think of time travel in a different way and had depth and meaning. But Looper wasn’t that movie.

I noticed minor problems in the first two acts of Looper, but nothing that couldn’t be excused if the ending nailed it. There were many things to like, including the fluid and messy way of how the future changes. Unfortunately when it came to the final conflict, not only did it introduce a massive plot hole, but the plot hole obliterated everything that had come before it, as well as any meaning the movie might have had. Suddenly all of those earlier problems seemed much more pertinent, like warning bells that I’d ignored at my own peril. It was so close though. It almost worked, which somehow made it even worse. I could feel its potential like when a word is on the tip of your tongue and well, it bugged me.

After watching the movie, I wanted to find some meaning in what I just saw. My first thought was to see if Johnson answered any of my questions in his interviews. I was hoping that Johnson would have a simple explanation to the plot hole, that just didn’t happen to make it into the film. If that was the case I would have walked away happily, my curiosity sated, and I wouldn’t be writing this article. Instead I found this interview where Johnson was asked about it point blank, and was gutted by his answer.

“That’s the Terminator question… you can shoehorn it into making sense… but it’s magic logic”.

Really? Magic?

Saying it’s magic is the equivalent of “he woke up and it was all a dream”? It’s just plain cheating. I mean, he offers legitimate and logical answers for some of the other questions, just not that most important one – the one that justifies everything that occurs in the movie. A switch inside my head was triggered and I heard my inner voice say “Challenge accepted”.

I wanted to see if others had the same questions so I jumped online and read a whole bunch of reviews and discussions. People had noticed all sorts of problems, but not many people brought up that one massive plot hole, although those that did seemed to have the same reaction.

Most reviews agreed there were logic problems or plot holes and either liked the movie despite of them, or didn’t like the movie because of them. None seemed to offer any significant insight beyond that, which is fair enough since most were avoiding spoilers.

Still puzzled, I read the original treatment and the screenplay to see if they contained any answers that just hadn’t made it to the screen. In fact some questions were answered, but more questions raised, so I watched the movie again with Johnson’s commentary. Finally I watched and listened to a bunch of interviews with Johnson. I’ve done my homework.

One thing worth mentioning before I start, is that Johnson seems to be completely happy with the movie, the plot, and the ending. He’s curiously apologetic for many action/shoot-em-up elements, but he’s entirely unapologetic for the logic problems and plot holes, to the point that they’re completely ignored in the commentaries. So I know I’m not doing him any favours by writing this, but I’ve done my best to understand what Johnson was attempting to achieve. I’ve found the answers to as many questions as I can to make this analysis as meaningful as possible.

There are three kinds of plot hole or logic problems with movies. The worst kind take you out of the story while you’re watching it, and can easily ruin a movie, or at least affect your enjoyment of the movie. Then there are problems you only notice after the movie’s finished and you’re thinking about it later – commonly known as “fridge logic” because you notice it after you’ve gone home and are raiding the fridge. These can be major or minor plot holes or inconsistencies, but the film maker has been clever enough to distract you from them. These problems can affect the longevity of a film but since they largely go unnoticed on first viewing, they don’t tend to affect its immediate enjoyment or box office. The last kind of problem is a misunderstanding, which is sometimes mistaken for one of the other two kinds of problems. Either the viewer wasn’t paying attention, or the film maker didn’t explain something well enough, and the viewer thinks there’s a problem that isn’t really there. These can be just as bad as the other two problems because, although they can be justified, they still affect the enjoyment of the movie.

The problems I have with Looper were those I noticed on first viewing, that took me out of the story while I was watching it and detracted from the overall experience. Since everyone’s experience is different, I realise that many people overlooked some of those problems or didn’t care, and found the meaning they desired. Others were bothered by even more problems. So I’ll talk about some of the different types of problems with the movie, and some of the problems other people have written about, to see if there was maybe a way those can be explained or maybe could have been avoided.

Why do Loopers kill themselves?

This was the first question that really distracted me, and it followed me through the whole movie. I like the idea that loopers have to kill themselves. It presents an interesting ethical dilemma and has great dramatic impact, so it’s understandable that this idea is the genesis of the whole movie. But it doesn’t make sense within the context of the movie. The whole operation the future mob have going is pretty complex, but well contained because they’re getting away with it, which means they’re not dumb. So within this supposedly airtight operation, how are there so many opportunities for things to go wrong?

Loopers killing their future selves allows for ethical problems, exactly as the film showed. Those can’t be the only two times loopers didn’t kill themselves, granted Joe’s escape appeared to be a unique occurrence (but if you think about it, maybe not so unique). But still, why not send an ex-looper back to a different looper so you’re fully covered? These looper guys don’t seem to be the brightest sparks on the planet, and if any of them enjoy what they’re doing a bit too much maybe they wouldn’t always shoot first. Maybe they’d play with their victims first. Look into their eyes while they shoot them. Maybe they wouldn’t just shoot them, maybe they’d kill them slowly with a knife. There doesn’t seem to be any checks and balances on exactly how victim dies. Maybe an enterprising looper might blackmail their victims into providing information in exchange for the looper killing them quickly instead of slowly, or find out who the victim is and threaten to kill them and/or their family in the present erasing 30 years of their lives. Maybe an enterprising looper might do deals with their victims. Information about the future in exchange for making sure the victims family is safe and/or looked after in the present “Hey I can tell your present self exactly when the mob gets you” which as we saw could make quite a difference in that persons future. I mean there are so many possibilities, that assuming they all shoot first and ask questions later seems a bit naive.

Johnson explains that they have to kill themselves to close the loop, to keep it tidy. But if anything it’s messier. Killing themselves, and knowing they’ve killed themselves by receiving a big fat retirement payout, means that each looper knows exactly when he’s sent back and can plan for it the next time around (although old Joe seems to have been caught completely by surprise). That doesn’t sound like a closed loop to me. If it was me I’d be pissed, and spend much of those 30 years trying to get revenge, or at least doing everything I could to avoid it. I’d turn states evidence, or get myself locked up. Maybe I’d become a cop and join a task force charged with taking down the mob. Again, so many possibilities for things to go wrong. Sending ex-loopers back to be killed by different loopers means the looper doesn’t know his future self is dead. He doesn’t know when the mob sends him back, or even if they send him back. Surely that looper is less of a threat than one who knows they have exactly 30 years to plan revenge and save his own life.

Johnson’s other explanation is that if another looper killed your future self it would be messy because you could get revenge by killing that other looper. While it’s difficult for me to believe that the future mob cares if one looper kills another (they seem to be pretty expendable), if I killed your future self and I somehow figured out that it was your future self (because I’m one of those sadistic loopers that tortures before killing), what kind of idiot would I be if I told you that I’d just killed your future self? And even if you then killed me out of some misplaced sense of revenge, it would be too late because I’d already closed your loop by killing your future self. So why would it matter if you killed me? It’s not like killing folks is a big deal in this semi-dystopian future where it’s well established that anyone with a gun can kill vagrants willy-nilly.

The movie explains the reason loopers are sent back at all. If something happens to the mob in the future and they have to erase any trace of their time travelling hijinks, they’ll send back the loopers to tie up all the loose ends (This explanation severely undermines the dramatic impact of the Rainmakers actions, but more on that later). That means that as soon as one looper is sent back, the others know they’re going to follow soon. This could easily lead to a strike or even a revolt as soon as the first looper gets his golden handshake. If they all refuse to kill their future selves, maybe Abe gets the gat men to do it. But then the gat men are future loose ends, and it only takes one smart one of them to realise they’re next. So they revolt, kill Abe, and suddenly the future mob realises they should have just sent victims back straight into a meat grinder or incinerator (or volcano or the middle of the ocean as has been suggested). But of course then we wouldn’t have a movie. But if the loopers are unaware that their future self has been terminated by a different looper, then there’s no striking or revolting, just blissful, ignorant compliance.

Just like my blissful ignorant compliance when I usually watch a movie. Unfortunately most of these thoughts are going through my head in some form or other while I’m watching Looper, so it’s no wonder it wasn’t connecting emotionally.

One explanation that I read (more than once) is how else would the mob pay the looper their retirement money? Because apparently the future mob’s main objective is to make sure they can pay these guys as much money as they can, out of the goodness of their hearts. The future mob wouldn’t even consider an alternate way of operating where they can just pay normal hit money instead of a retirement goldmine. I’m sorry, I’m being sarcastic. Of course that’s completely illogical.

Ok, so it’s a logic problem. Not the end of the world, but a distracting and fairly common complaint. There are two ways to solve this problem. Either provide a more logical reason for loopers having to kill their future selves, or change the premise so ex-loopers are sent back to different loopers.

Providing a plausible explanation for loopers having to kill themselves is a tricky one. Maybe a looper killing his future self is the initiation to becoming a gat man. That could maybe work if gat men had greater job security and higher pay, but it still doesn’t account for the disgruntled ones using the next 30 years to get even. Maybe loopers are made to kill their future selves as part of some initiation ritual. This I would expect from a ruthless future mob. When someone first becomes a looper, they have to kill their future self to prove they have what it takes. The first time they’re caught and sent back, they hadn’t been loopers in the present. The act of becoming a looper changes their future, which allows for the possibility that they aren’t sent back at that time any more, in the same way that old Joe was killed by young joe one time, but not the next. But then if they’re not sent back at the same time any more who do they kill in the initiation?

Wow, this changeable future time travel does get tricky. Let’s refresh ourselves on the established rules of Loopers time travel. Changing things in the present/past only changes things from that point on, thus old Seth stayed in the present even after his arms and legs had been cut off, even though there was no way that he could have got there in that condition. So changing something in the present/past can’t undo anything that has happened before that point in time, including remnants of the previous timeline. For example, we should assume the kid that old Joe killed remains dead even though young Joe killed himself, because he was killed before young Joe killed himself.

So the loopers who’ve killed their future selves during initiation could still have to face killing themselves again. This is somewhat of a paradox, but reasonable given the rules. But then we get back to the original problem, why kill themselves when sending each one back to a different looper makes more sense. I think this solution is becoming way too complicated, so I’m going to put the straws away and look our other option.

How could the story have accommodated a change where ex-loopers are sent back to other loopers instead of themselves? Two events are impacted by this change. The first is old Seth needs to escape to establish the rules of how the future can be changed by present events and to present Joe with the dilemma of choosing his money over his friend. The second is that old Joe needs to escape.

Old Seth wouldn’t have a chance with Joe. It’s been established that Joe kills his victims quick. I like that trait and it would be good to keep it. Instead, old Seth is sent back to Dale. Dale might be distracted, or his gun jams, or maybe he’s one of those more sadistic loopers we discussed. He hesitates long enough for old Seth to work his gag loose. He tells this mystery looper “It’s me, Seth”. Dale and Seth are close enough friends that Dale lets him talk, gives him a cigarette and he runs just like in the movie. Terrified of the consequences, Dale goes to Joe, but Joe cuts him off before he mentions the name of the runner. Joe is now confronted with losing two of his friends. He hides Dale before being taken in to see Abe. Abe confronts Joe just as he did in the movie with the addition that Abe’s also asking for the name of the runner. They find Dale and get from him the name of the runner. Seth, completely unaware of any of this, is hauled from his bed and tortured to get old Seth back the same way it happened in the movie.
Joe betrays two friends. It’s a more difficult choice, creates more drama and more strongly establishes Joe’s selfishness. Abe not knowing the name of the runner adds more tension to the situation (although it’s plausible that he would know the names of the victims, so it could play either way). Now old Joe needs to escape. Luckily the exact same situation works just as well with any looper as it did with young Joe. It doesn’t even matter which looper it is as long as Joe knows him. Old Joe comes back late, recognises the looper and says “Hi” calling him by name. That throws the looper long enough for old Joe to spin around and… well you’ve seen that part.From there we need to deviate from the movie. We’ve seen, or can imagine from Dale’s fear, what happens when a looper lets a victim run, so…
Instead of going to Abe, the looper goes after young Joe first and pulls a gun on him.
Thinking about it now, maybe Kid Blue could be the looper. It would certainly give Kid Blue that necessary motivation to lead the attack on the Joe’s and continue the pursuit beyond the call of duty as he does.
Young Joe gets away from Kid Blue. Realising he’s on borrowed time, he goes home to get some things (and probably his money). By this time Kid Blue has rustled up some help and catches him in his apartment. The existing storyline continues from here.
That works nicely. I quite like including Kid Blue as a looper. The movie suggests there’s prior competition between them, and this way Kid Blue has a grudge against both young Joe and old Joe. Added motivation always helps.Of course, the simplest option comes from Johnson’s original short story which implies that each crime syndicate employs one looper, a lone wolf. In that case a looper is the only one who can kill his future self. Question answered. How can we make that work within the context of the story?
Seth is Joe’s best friend (or a gat man to give him a connection with the organisation). Why old Seth is sent back isn’t important, but easy enough to justify. How does he get away though? Remember Joe kills his victims quick. Maybe his gun jams, giving old Seth a chance to work his gag loose enough to say “Joe, it’s me. Seth”. Joe is the only looper, so Seth knows it’s him. Joe and Seth are close friends, so Joe lets him talk, gives him a cigarette and he runs just like in the movie.

In the movie this event leads to an important sequence where Joe betrays his friend for money. In this version Joe knows he’s done the wrong thing.

Joe turns himself in to Abe, but is hesitant to divulge the identity of the runner. Joe wants to find the runner by himself, but Abe threatens to take his silver, so Joe gives him the name. Seth, completely unaware of any of this, is hauled from his bed and tortured to get old Seth back the same way it happened in the movie.

Abe gives Joe another chance so when old Joe manages to run, even though young Joe couldn’t really have done anything to prevent it, he’s in deep shit and knows it.

It strikes me that killing your best friend might be even harder than killing yourself. It certainly would carry more guilt. So the first scene could be just as dramatic. Seth’s torture is a bit more brutal than the movie, as Seth is completely innocent, but still tortured to ensure the death of his future self, but I like how that increases the stakes. Being the only looper helps to emphasise how alone Joe is when he’s on the run which makes the dilemma of whether to join or hunt old Joe that much more enticing, leading to additional inner conflict. This works so well, I wonder why Johnson changed it?

Being at the start of the movie, and being so important to the plot, this logic problem starts those seeds of doubt in the viewers mind, which is never a good thing. The viewer starts looking for an answer, perhaps analysing the plot more thoroughly than they would have otherwise. With the added scrutiny the film maker can’t get away with as much. But ultimately it’s a problem that could be overlooked if the rest of the movie works, which in this case it doesn’t.

Next Time

Next time I’ll talk about that massive plot hole that derails the whole movie.

Continue reading: The Importance of Plot – Part 2