An Analysis of Looper
In part 1 I talked about the logic problem of loopers having to kill their future selves. This time we’re going to look at the massive plot hole that derails the whole movie. Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about, but some may be asking “What plot hole? Looper was great”. It’s difficult to know where to start talking about this plot hole because it affects, and attempts to bring meaning to, so many aspects of the movie. So I’ll just come out and say it:
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great concept. A bad guy tears up the future, so a good guy goes back to the past to kill the bad guy before he can become the bad guy. Embedded within is the excellent ethical dilemma of whether it’s right to punish or kill someone before they’ve done bad things, compounded by the fact that the bad guy is probably a child at that point. When you add that the good guys past self becomes attached to the future bad guy child, you’ve got a recipe for some great external conflict and internal conflict as both versions of the good guy fight each other. That sounds like the makings of an awesome movie right there.
The question could be asked at this point, if it even needs the addition of assassins doing hits on people sent back from the future. It’s almost seems as if Looper is two different movies that have been shoehorned together, and we haven’t even mentioned telekinesis yet. I’m reminded of Good Will Hunting where apparently Weinstein looked at an early draft and realised there were two different stories competing. His advice was to focus on one story or the other. Damon and Affleck did, and ended up with a great movie.
Although the Rainmaker elements of the story could work by themselves, remember the idea of a looper was the initial inspiration. I wonder if that idea could sustain a movie without the Rainmaker? We have a looper who fails to assassinate his future self. If we remove the Rainmaker as motivation, surely old Joe would still be pissed at the crime syndicate that sent him back, or maybe his misplaced anger is directed to the authorities that took down the crime syndicate. His wife being killed could even remain as fuel on the fire. Old Joe then has two objectives. To take down the crime syndicate before it exists, or whoever took them down, and to save his wife. Young Joe has to decide whether to help old Joe or help himself. Young Joe could be given some connection to either the syndicate or the wife to add conflict. There seems to be plenty of scope to create a dramatic and intriguing story out of that alone.
It could even be set up so that events that occur in the looper movie end up creating the Rainmaker. Sara could be a minor character in the looper movie, still a junkie partying with Joe and his friends, who gets killed. Without Sara’s influence Cid becomes the Rainmaker, creating havok in the future and ruining Joe’s life. Joe decides to come back (again), this time to find out who the Rainmaker is and stop him, either by killing him or preventing Sara’s death.
So these ideas could work for two separate movies, or a movie and a sequel. Surely there’s a way to include them in the same movie. How did it all go so wrong?
The Plot Hole
I was willing to go along with the Rainmaker storyline for most of the movie even though, or perhaps because, I couldn’t quite make sense of it. Many great movies set up a mystery or question early on to keep the viewer invested, and in this case it was also the mystery that old Joe was trying to solve. I was eager to discover the answer to this mystery, confident that all would be revealed in the climax. Let’s revisit what we know leading up to that point.
Cid is a telekinetic who’s mother, Sara, returns to look after him after he accidentally killed his aunt (who he thought was his mother). Old Joe learns what we’ve suspected, that Cid is the kid who becomes the Rainmaker.
Let’s revisit Johnsons answer when asked about it, “That’s the Terminator question… you can shoehorn it into making sense… but it’s magic logic”.
Firstly, The Terminator features a different kind of time travel to Looper which makes it very difficult to compare the two directly. There are generally two kinds of time travel in movies. One deals with fatalistic time travel, or causal loops, where everything that will happen has happened so nothing can change the future – everything is predestined. 12 Monkeys is a remarkable example of this. The Terminator is another example, which contains a cool paradox right at the end. The other kind of time travel features an uncertain future. The future is malleable so changes to the past can change the future. Back to the Future and Looper feature this kind of time travel.
Secondly, the paradox introduced right at the end of The Terminator is totally cool and elevates the movie to the classic that it is, but you know what? Take it out, and every element of the movie still works, logically, dramatically, and thematically. It’s icing on an already very tasty cake, but provides delicious irony that gives you a different perspective on everything that occurred in the movie. It’s a great example of an ontological paradox, but is in no way “magic logic”. There’s just no comparison to the Rainmaker in Looper which can’t be removed because it’s central to everything happening in the movie, and yet by Johnson’s own admission it doesn’t make any logical sense. It’s not any sort of paradox or time trope, it’s just a big old plot hole.
Johnson also says in the commentary, “…getting it to the point where it makes sense, which it really doesn’t. No time travel in any movie ever makes sense. It’s complete balderdash. It’s just a matter of tricking the audience into believing that it makes sense”.
There is an element of truth in that, because we know that time travel doesn’t exist, but essentially it’s a total cop out. It’s so important when creating any kind of fantasy story, to establish the rules of your story world and make sure every event, every character, and every motivation sticks to those rules. For time travel stories to make sense you just need to set up the rules for time travel that best serve your story, and stick to them. Within those two basic types of time travel, every movie has slightly different rules, but that’s fine so long as each movie abides by its established rules. Back to the Future, 12 Monkeys and The Terminator all abide by their respective time travel rules. That’s one of the reasons they’re all classics. Within their own internal logic they make complete sense, so they don’t need to trick the audience. Sure, as we’ve discussed, some of the elements within Looper’s rules don’t make sense, but that’s forgivable. The reason Looper doesn’t work is that it spends the entire movie establishing the rules, and then breaks those rules at the last minute to manipulate us into believing its message.
Let’s look at an example of those rules being broken. To explain old Joe’s mention of the Rainmakers synthetic jaw, Johnson comments “His memories are already melding to the current timeline, so the current version of events that are setting themselves up are already informing his memories of the future”.
Well, no wonder the movie doesn’t hold together. It’s just been established that old Joe’s memories only change after young Joe does something different – something that’s reinforced multiple times in the movie. Anything could happen at this point, because everything that occurs changes the future. To say that Joe’s memories are conforming to something that is going to happen, suggests there’s a predestined timeline, which goes against the rules of time travel established by the movie.
But despite all this, I’m still hoping that the movie might redeem itself. I can see what’s coming, but I’m desperately hoping it doesn’t go there. There’s still a chance for a final twist, a surprise ending that I didn’t see coming that explains and provides meaning for all of this. Let’s see…
Let’s review. Under the rules of a changeable future, established and necessary to the story of Looper, if old Joe’s actions are the cause for Cid to become the Rainmaker as the movie wants us to believe, then Cid couldn’t have become the Rainmaker in the timeline that Joe came from. Since we know that the Rainmaker did exist in the timeline that Joe came from, old Joe’s actions can’t be the only cause for Cid to become the Rainmaker. So whether he succeeds or fails, Cid is still likely to become the Rainmaker, and if Cid is likely to become the Rainmaker either way, then young Joe killing himself is pointless.
None of this is a bad in itself, in fact it has all the makings of a great tragedy – different to, but equally as good as 12 Monkeys. But even though it’s full of wonderful dramatic irony, that isn’t the ending that was chosen.
In order for young Joe’s suicide to be meaningful in a positive way, we need to have a happy ending. So Joe’s suicide has to somehow save Cid from becoming the Rainmaker. But if Cid is saved from becoming the Rainmaker, it removes the dramatic irony inherent in the situation. Since, apparently, every good time travel movie has to have a dramatically ironic ending or some cool paradox, the movie tries to convince us that old Joe’s actions are what cause the Rainmaker which, because we know that isn’t possible, completely ruins the ending…
and the beginning…
because Old Joe creating the Rainmaker is the only reason provided for us to explain why the Rainmaker targets loopers in the future. Since Joe couldn’t have created the Rainmaker, the Rainmaker targeting loopers makes no sense. What other reason could the Rainmaker have for targeting loopers in the first place?
Why Does The Rainmaker Target Loopers?
The back story (or future story in this case) of the Rainmaker is that he’s taken over the mob through force and is closing all the loops. Ooh, it sounds exciting. The trouble is that the movie has already gone to great lengths to explain that most loops end up closed anyway. If the authorities bust a syndicate, the first thing they do is to close the loops to eliminate witnesses. Loopers generally expect that their loop will be closed. So why have the Rainmaker at all? We don’t need another reason to close a loop. After going to all that exposition, I mean effort providing a reason for old Joe to be sent back, it’s not used. Instead a whole different reason is created which requires a whole lot more exposition, er… explanation, and makes a lot less sense.
To investigate the Rainmaker’s future exploits we need to look more closely at the reason provided for sending people back from the future in the first place. Apparently there’s some sort of tracking technology in the future which makes it difficult to dispose of a body without alerting the authorities so victims are sent back in time to be killed before the authorities had such technology. Alright, I buy that. I don’t need to understand the details. Just knowing the authorities make it difficult is enough. But really, do we even need a reason to dispose of a body? Being told that the mob uses time travel to dispose of bodies is enough for me because I’ve seen enough Soprano’s to be able to identify with the difficulty of disposing of a body. Fabricating a technical reason for it like tracking technology just gives us more things that need justification, more exposition, and more potential logic problems (like Joe’s Wife). But let’s go with the tracking technology for now.
We’re shown that the Rainmaker is called the Rainmaker because he explodes bodies while holding them suspended in the air through the power of telekinesis, creating a shower of blood. It’s implied that it’s this power that has enabled him to take over the future crime syndicates. That suggests that he’s used his power to assert his dominance, killing people in a future we’re told people don’t get away with killing. The wreckage we’re shown in the news footage suggests that he’s killed many people. Maybe he’s the only one able to get away with it, but still why doesn’t he just explode the loopers in the future? That’s a whole lot neater than sending them back in time, allowing for the possibility they’ll get away and kill his juvenile self. Perhaps a more important question though, is why close the loops at all? If he’s so powerful why does he care about them? It must be because he doesn’t like them.
What does he have against loopers anyway? Oh yeah, it was a looper who killed his mother, gave him this synthetic jaw, and caused him to become evil. No wait, that was just a daydream young Joe had. No, there’s no reason we’re given for him to hate loopers. Can’t be that important. No wait, it is important because it’s this vendetta against loopers that’s supposedly what causes him to send old Joe back in time setting off all the events of the movie.
Again I just have to ask, why include the Rainmaker at all? I’m just not buying any of the back story at this point. Yeah it’s an interesting idea, but a super telekinetic who uses his powers for evil is one of those ideas that could support a whole movie in itself (that’s 3 so far). It’s like making a WWII movie that’s advertised as a gritty WWII movie, but having Captain America swoop in to save the day right at the end. Captain America might be a cool character, but he just doesn’t fit in that movie, and most people expecting a war movie would be disappointed.
What could we do instead? Let’s start with the obvious – the reason we’ve already been given:
But what if the producer has decided the Rainmaker character has to stay. Maybe adding telekinesis was his idea, because he loves Akira and his kid loves X-Men, and superhuman powers are “in” right now. How can we include the Rainmaker in the story without causing problems?
But coming back to the problem, old Joe can’t be the cause of Cid becoming the Rainmaker, because we know the Rainmaker existed in his timeline. This ruins the ending by making young Joe’s suicide largely meaningless, and ruins the beginning by removing the Rainmakers motivation for targeting loopers. But wait, that’s not all.
It also ruins the future.
Why does Cid go bad?
If old Joe doesn’t cause Cid to become the Rainmaker, what does? The simple answer is we don’t know. Everything has been set up so nicely for him to grow up good, it just doesn’t make sense that he wouldn’t.
We’ve looked at a couple of scenarios where Cid doesn’t need to go bad, but can still be old Joe’s target. He might become the cop who takes down the crime syndicate, or the inventor of the time machine. If he doesn’t go bad, it creates a different dynamic to the climax where old Joe wants to kill a good kid purely for his own gain. This provides even more of an ethical dilemma, and ultimately comes across as much more selfish because there are no other redeeming factors to Cid’s death.
If Cid grows up bad, then old Joe is saving the world from a mass murdering force of destruction, which presents much less of an ethical dilemma. Killing one kid to save thousands of people is a much easier choice than killing a kid to save just one person, your wife, who you can save more easily without killing anyone. Add to this the possibility of Cid being good and having an accident, just a victim of his power, and you’ve got an even stronger dilemma.
No matter how we look at it, Cid growing up good strengthens the dilemma, and therefore the dramatic potential of the situation. The only upside to Cid growing up bad is being able to include a message about the power of parenting. We can contrast the way he grew up bad in the first timeline with how he will grow up good in the second, through the love of a nurturing parent. But where is that contrast in the movie? There’s no difference in Cid and Sara’s back story between the first timeline and the second. The way their back story is presented in Looper explains perfectly why Cid grows up to be a good guy in the first timeline even though we’re told he doesn’t.
Sara returned when her sister was killed, after not seeing Cid for 2 years, and decided to become the mother to him she should have been from the start.
Later, Sara explains that Cid killed his aunt when a bookshelf fell on him. We’re not sure who to believe (Is Cid’s mention of bad men included to give him justification for hating loopers?).
There is a scene just after Cid kills Jesse where Sara begs Joe not to go after Cid. She asks him to imagine if Cid grew up with her raising him, if he grew up good. But without Joe’s intervention, that did happen in the first timeline, so it’s confusing. I guess this scene is suggesting that Joe’s actions create the only specific circumstances which enable Sara to talk Cid down, giving Cid the control he needs to avoid becoming the Rainmaker. That’s a nice idea, but if Sara is able to talk Cid down from a major telekinetic tantrum in this instance, it stands to reason that she could have also talked him down in the previous Rainmaker timeline when her life depended on it. Perhaps she didn’t though, or she wasn’t there when he had another life altering meltdown. But that’s a lot of if’s and coincidences (and if we could find meaning in coincidence we wouldn’t have religion). It completely releases all the built up tension in the scene. More importantly if we believe that Joe’s actions create the only specific circumstances which enable Sara to talk Cid down, but we factor in that the movie has already told us that those actions are what created the Rainmaker, then it just all negates itself.
I read where someone pointed out that the notable difference between the previous timeline and the new one is that Sara and Cid become rich. I didn’t catch that originally, and while it kind of makes sense, I just can’t believe that’s the message we’re supposed to walk away with — that being rich instead of poor enables Cid to become good instead of evil. That money is the root of all… good? If anyone came away with that impression I’d take the money out of the movie altogether, or show Sara and Cid leaving it behind. They don’t need to be wealthy if they’ve got each other right?
Note: The movie deviates from the script just after Sara shoots young Joe. In the script Joe explains time travel to her, we cut away to old Joe, and then return as young Joe finishes his explanation. Sarah admits she’s heard stories about loopers. It indicates something in her past that feels like it could be important, but isn’t elaborated on. In the movie as soon as Joe starts to explain time travel, Sara jumps in with “You’re a looper”, indicating a much stronger connection that feels like it should be more important, but likewise is never elaborated on. It seems like a waste to have that and not use it, especially when we’re looking for a reason for her son to hate loopers.
We’re given a story about a kid who’s gonna turn out ok, wait… his mother nearly died… no she’s ok, they’re both ok. It’s an emotional straight line with a bit of a hiccup. I want to see a story about a kid who’s damaged beyond repair and clearly vengeful with the power to follow through, wait… this woman gets through to him, she’s his mother?…Oh no she’s about to be killed… no she’s ok, they’re both ok. He’s saved. Wow, what a rollercoaster.
It’s seems that if the parenting message is to have more impact, Sara’s back story will have to undergo some changes. We need to give Cid motivation to become the Rainmaker and provide a way to save him in the end to make sense of the story. To reinforce the parenting message, Sara needs to be the unequivocal instrument of both Cid’s destruction and salvation.
We see, during Joe’s flashback (or is it flash forward?), that at some point in the future Sara dies of an overdose after they get high together. We don’t realise the full significance yet.
Joe’s time at the farmhouse bonding with Cid is the same, except with Cid’s aunt instead of Sara (We may learn than Sara’s sister blames a looper for Sara’s absence if we need it). Jesse arrives at the farmhouse, Cid has his telekinetic freak out, but kills both Jesse and the aunt.
At the club, in the wrong place at the right time, Sara sees where the gat men are heading and realises it’s her sisters house. She rushes there, while old Joe is taking out the gat men, to find young Joe standing over Cid. She thinks he’s going to kill Cid, but Cid hugs him instead. Full of remorse she takes Cid into her arms, apologising and promising to make it right.
Joe tells her to pack some things in Jesse’s truck…
This just highlights one of the problems with down playing time travel in the movie. Its full potential wasn’t reached. We barely see any impact of old Joe changing the past, even though the changes he makes are significant. Time travel becomes more of a theoretical element instead of a dramatic device. Here we see more immediate consequences of the changes that Joe instigates which serve the story better and couldn’t occur without time travel.
To really push it I thought about going a step further and have old Joe directly save Sara’s life, either resuscitating her from the overdose soon after he arrives, or later on at the club, saving her from a gat man who was about to kill her, but I was concerned that both of those seemed a bit too contrived. Perhaps one of them could work though…
If that’s all a bit too coincidental, there is a way to keep the back story as it is. It still doesn’t explain how or why Sara knows about loopers, but it’s less complex, and would probably just require a quick re-shoot. Everything up to the farm is the same…
If you believe that Sara talking Cid down is both the moment of Cid’s salvation and an isolated incident, you could make an argument that the same dramatic irony is there in the existing climax. The trouble with this is it occurs immediately before the climax so we barely have enough time to register it, let alone be emotionally invested in it. More importantly the fact that old Joe sees it happen, and doesn’t believe it saves Cid or else he wouldn’t still threaten him, takes the dramatic right out of the irony.
Come to think of it, if young Joe was the one to talk Cid down instead of Sara (immediately after Jesse explodes perhaps), that would provide justification for Cid becoming the Rainmaker in the first timeline (because Joe wasn’t there) and explain how Cid is saved. It further demonstrates the bond between young Joe and Cid, and gives the climax the added dramatic irony that old Joe has already saved Cid’s future without knowing it. It would also provide an opportunity to show Cid become enraged at young Joe’s death/suicide, and then calm down, demonstrating his new found control to show the audience that he’s not going to become the Rainmaker. At least… not today.
All of these scenarios provide a way for Cid to become the Rainmaker, but leave open the possibility that he’s good or bad – helpless victim or vengeful criminal. Whichever option provides the greatest drama in the climax can be chosen.
Next time we’ll look at some of the sub-plots, and ways they could come together at the end to increase the drama and catharsis of the ending. I’ll also talk about some of the minor logic problems and some things that could have been fixed in the editing room.