An Analysis of Looper
Read part 2: The Importance of Plot – Part 2
In part 1 I talked about the logic problem of loopers having to kill their future selves. Part 2 dealt with the massive plot hole that derails the whole movie. Now I’m going to address some of the sub-plots, and ways they could come together at the end to increase the drama and catharsis of the ending. We’ll also look at some of the minor logic problems and some things that could have been fixed in the editing room.
There’s been a lot said about what a strong character Sara is, and on the surface I’d agree. However as we’ve discussed, there isn’t much depth to her. We don’t care for her anywhere near as much as Cid or old Joe because her story is relegated to the past, as exposition. Even in that final climax, Joe’s dilemma comes down to whether he thinks Cid’s life will be ruined or not, rather than whether Sara lives or dies. If Sara’s character had been stronger, maybe we could have also seen a glimmer of hope of a relationship between Sara and Joe. We could have had a real emotional conflict between young Joe and old Joe, together with a very healthy dose of dramatic irony. Picture that final stand-off between Sara, old Joe and young Joe and imagine if young Joe and Sara had a deeper connection.
That’s really powerful stuff, a true emotional dilemma. But we miss out on it because Joe is too cynical to feel anything for Sara, and Sara’s only real concern is for Cid. As Johnson explains in the commentary, he didn’t want any romance between Joe and Sara so he could focus the story on Cid. What a shame that we missed out on that dramatic and emotional complexity.
I like old Joe. I get what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. I totally empathise with him, and find him the most appealing character in the movie. I especially like that he doesn’t just want to just save his wife, but save their relationship. He’s also conflicted by a promise to his wife to give up violence, because violence is the only way he knows to save their relationship. It’s wonderful. It’s complex. But is it selfish? The movie seems to suggest that old Joe hasn’t really changed, and that only young Joe, through his self sacrifice, demonstrates true inner growth. But that’s only true if Joe doesn’t understand how time travel works. If Joe thinks that by killing the future Rainmaker, he will be returned to his future and live out the rest of his life with his wife, then granted it’s selfish. But we know that’s not how time travel works (as established in this movie). If Joe does understand time travel, then he knows that no matter what he does nothing will change for him. He can only affect young Joe’s future, therefore wanting to save his relationship with his wife for young Joe is selfless. He would be selfish in that instance if he only saved his wife, denying young Joe the relationship and the salvation he experienced through it.
There’s enough ambiguity that either could be the case, which isn’t good for emotional clarity. Johnson explains, that we’re supposed to think that old Joe is being selfish by wanting to save his relationship, even though it’s not logical. It’s established that lots of people understand the rules of time travel. Abe and Kid Blue do, because they use it to their advantage to get old Seth back. If Kid Blue does, then you’ve got to assume a few other gat men do. If they know, then a few loopers would. That’s not even taking into account what Joe might learn during the next 30 years.
How we perceive old Joe is also influenced by his reaction to his mission. Of course it’s difficult to kill a child, and a decent amount of soul searching before and after is expected, but how remorseful he is influences how we feel about him. After killing the child, if Joe steeled his jaw, holding his emotions in check as he went to find the next one, we’d feel less sympathy. Instead he becomes visibly upset, distraught even, and we feel sorry for the guy. Yeah he’s done a bad, bad thing, but he feels bad about it, so he can’t be all bad. I feel like at this point we should really be hating the guy, but it’s just not happening.
Let’s compare that to young Joe. What’s he done? Hid at a farmhouse. Cid saved him from Jesse. He had sex with Cid’s mum, and keeps telling everyone he only cares about himself. What a jerk.
Looking beyond old Joe’s personal motivation, his selfishness is also influenced by the Rainmaker. As we’ve discussed, if Cid becomes a mass murdering force of destruction, then old Joe killing him is doing the world a service. If Cid was to become a good person, then Joe killing him seems more selfish, even if he’s doing it for young Joe. Since Cid can’t become the Rainmaker in old Joe’s timeline we’re left hanging again. Defining Cid’s future one way or the other would certainly help determine whether old Joe is acting selfishly or not.
Leaving it open for philosophical discussion isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It only becomes a bad thing if the theme of the movie relies on it being one way or the other. Unfortunately, since we know that young Joe’s suicide can’t affect Cid becoming the Rainmaker, then this question becomes more important to the theme than it might otherwise be. We want his suicide to have meaning. If it was made more clear it could have had great impact on the ending, on the theme, rather than just being a discussion point.
Let’s see if the original short story can shed any light on the situation. Old Joe’s wife was killed when he was captured, so he convinces young Joe to kill himself to save her life. In this scenario there’s less room for doubt. Old Joe is saving his wife by making sure he never meets her. It’s the equivalent of showing young Joe the photo. It’s nice and simple, but there just isn’t enough justification for young Joe to kill himself. What I like about it is that old Joe appears to be acting selflessly, sacrificing his younger self to save his wife, but at the same time he’s denying his younger self 30 years of life, which is kind of selfish since he’s had the benefit of living those 30 years. You could say manages to have his cake and eat it too. It doesn’t seem much help at first glance, but with a slight adjustment in perspective it might be just what’s needed.
I alluded to it earlier, but now I need to come out and say it. I think old Joe would have made a better protagonist than young Joe. With old Joe as protagonist, I have an ending in mind, inspired from the original short story. I don’t want to reveal it straight away, so bear with me.
Doesn’t that feel more powerful? It’s bitter sweet in a way that young Joe’s suicide isn’t. It’s essentially the same ending from a different perspective, but it provides catharsis that the original doesn’t (as long as there’s no mention of that damn synthetic jaw). The reason it’s cathartic is that the whole movie has been giving us reasons for old Joe to grow, by showing us his life with his wife, and the promise he made to her. When he finally learns that lesson, it’s a huge relief. Old Joe has completed his character arc in a completely unexpected way. Young Joe on the other hand, isn’t given any true means of growth, other than a vague premonition right at the end which may or may not turn out true. So his suicide, while noble, is underwhelming, and his character arc is more of a straight line with a hiccup at the end.
One of the problems I have with the Rainmaker, that I didn’t mention earlier, is how he came to have his powers. It’s suggested that Cid’s dad might be a TK which starts to make sense, two TK’s have a child, the child is likely to have stronger TK. What doesn’t make sense then, is why Cid is the only one, and if he isn’t the only one how he gets away with all that stuff in the future. I understand it’s supposed to be a TK mutation, but with so many TK’s around it’s highly unlikely that it’s an isolated mutation. It’s just another thing that doesn’t quite add up.
But remember that producer who loves Akira? He isn’t about to let us just write it out (ok really I’m talking about Johnson’s inner producer here, because he’s expressed his love for Akira). Just like time travel, instead of just giving it lip service, we need to write it in. We need to weave telekinesis more deeply into the story so it doesn’t feel like an afterthought. Telekinesis needs to become so integral to the story that it can’t be taken out. Only then can we justify it being there at all.
My first instict is to somehow make having telekinesis a liability. Maybe people hide it because the government detains telekinetics for some reason (because they know what it could lead to. That’s right, they’ve done their experiments. Haven’t you seen Akira? They’ve got kids in there man). But it also needs to be used to get out of a tricky situation, well, other than that whole Jesse thing, because that one’s for a whole different reason. That can explain how Cid is somewhat unique in the future, because he’s been hidden from the government, and allows the TK save to be a surprise, because we didn’t know that person was a TK because they were hiding it.
Maybe it’s not just a party trick. Going back to our earlier idea that young Joe saves Sara’s life, Sara is TK, and waiting to find that out doesn’t really add anything. Maybe Sara is using TK to hold up a piece of farm machinery to work under it. She trips, looses concentration and it falls on her. Being injured, she doesn’t have the strength to lift it again. Joe find her in this condition and rescues her. It’s not quite what I had in mind, because it’s at the farm instead of in the city, but it’s something.
The very best way to integrate it would be to somehow link telekinesis with time travel. Perhaps the time machine couldn’t have been invested without TK, or it requires a TK to use it (although at first glance that would stop old Joe using it). Just something to inextricably link the two worlds, where one can’t exist without the other. I’m sure with a bit more thought it would be possible, and would lend so much more credibility to the world of Looper.
I don’t mind the idea of Joe going to China, but it certainly introduces a lot of complications for getting him back to America – complications that aren’t addressed at all in the movie (please note that I completely understand the actual reason for going to China ($$) so my real complaint is that it wasn’t addressed).
Firstly, it seems like a bit of a stretch for the crime syndicate to track down Joe all the way to China. I mean what’s the likelihood of the authorities finding him there? And even if they did, it’s stretching the realms of believability that there would be any type of extradition treaty between China and the US. And what would be the point? It’s not like Joe knew any of his employers. He could attest to the existence of loopers, but he couldn’t exactly point fingers. Ok, that’s getting a bit close to the fragile logic holding the whole movie together, but you see my point.
Secondly, how does the time machine in China send him back to small town USA? Is it a teleporter too? Each looper seems to have their own “spot”. Do those spots correspond to different time machines, and all Joe’s victims have come from that time machine in China? That’s a pretty big coincidence that the crime syndicate Joe loops for is the same part of China that Joe decides to settle in. Or do the time machines have a programmable GPS? Or has teleportation also been invented, and they teleport Joe back to the US?
I mean, why doesn’t he just move to Vermont? He can still learn French and have it be just as useful as it was in the final movie. Or maybe he decides to bring his wife back to the US for a holiday, or they have to leave China to escape legal trouble (the guys a ganster after all). The crime syndicate’s hackers track customs obviously. They notice he’s back, so they get ‘im.
Honestly, I did question the distance factor while watching the movie but didn’t dwell on it at the time, there were too many other problems to worry about. But since there are so many simple ways to avoid the many problems this causes, it just seems worth spending some time on.
Fix it in Post
A common complaint is that Joe’s wife is killed. I understand why. It conflicts with the logic of the movie while simultaneously trying to give it purpose, much like the Rainmaker. Let’s look a bit closer.
I’ve already mentioned it, but I think the real problem here is the convoluted justification for sending people back in time. The whole idea of tagging techniques making it more difficult to dispose of a body, while I’m happy to go along with it, seems unecessary. The original outline for Looper didn’t mention it, and I’m not sure why it was added. Without the advanced technology it makes perfect sense. Ritual killings are a knows feature of the mob ( even if it’s only in movies). We’ve all seen the old mob hitman taken out into the woods and two put in the back of his head by his replacement. Sending your hitman back in time to be killed by his younger self is a beautiful analogy of that same ritual. Having that ritual doesn’t mean that people aren’t killed by the mob through other methods, so Joe’s wife can still be killed in the process of carrying out his ritual killing without suspending belief. It works really well, especially if the movie equates looping with the ritual executions we’re familiar with, which could have been done in that opening voice over just as easily as slipping in “tagging techniques”.
But let’s go with the idea of tagging techniques. Lots of people think Joe’s wife being killed contradicts the idea of tagging technology. But Joe’s wife being killed is clearly an accident. It’s plausable that whoever shot her gets caught for it, even though it’s not shown. It’s easy to miss, but the movie does show the place has been set on fire after the event, perhaps in an attempt to hide the evidence.
But that’s not what happens in the script.
It’s revealing that in the shooting script, one of Joe’s kidnappers purposely and maliciously slits his wife’s throat. Obviously using the tagging techniques theory, that would directly contradict the purpose for sending people back in time in the first place. Since the original outline also describes Joe’s wife’s throat being slit, I imagine that the tagging techniques explanation could have been added fairly late in the game, and the full implications of it weren’t realised until later. To be honest, since there are so many other similar contradictions, I suspect the reason that it stayed that way right up to the shooting script and through the editing process was more due to a lack of understanding of the rules established by the movie.
If there was only one single change I could make to the movie, it would have been to remove the line about the Rainmaker having a synthetic jaw. If this one line had been omitted, it would have almost saved the movie. Without the synthetic jaw there is still a slight possibility that old Joe is just replicating something that may have occurred in the previous timeline.
I’ve already discussed it earlier so I’m not going to repeat myself. Suffice to say that adding the synthetic jaw comes across as too obvious a manipulation, a deception in an attempt to get the audience to believe something different to what the rest of the movie has established.
And speaking of deception…
The Final Voice Over
The final voice over tells us exactly what to believe, removing any chance of ambiguity, even though it doesn’t make any sense. Without the voice over, young Joe’s primary motivation for killing himself might have been to save Sara. That would have made more sense to me given, well, everything we’ve discussed. I would have been much more satisfied with the ending if I’d been allowed to make up my own mind.
Johnson mentions in the commentary that the final voice over was one of the last things added in the editing process. Apparently, not happy with the story the movie was telling by itself, Johnson added the voice over to manipulate the audience to believing something different. How disappointing.
I think the main reason people believe that final voice over is they were so confused by the contradictions throughout the movie, that they latched onto it.
What’s the big deal? All movies have plot holes.
It largely comes down to this. A movie makes a promise to the viewer. It says “I’m going to be this kind of movie, and give you this kind of experience”. It either lives up to, or even exceeds that promise or it doesn’t. Most people consider a movie is bad or good or great based on the delivery of that promise. This is similar to the genre a movie is categorised into, but is generally more subtle and complex because a movie is rarely just one thing. It’s this promise that allows me to enjoy so many different types of movies, from Transformers to The Shawshank Redemption. Transformers promised to be an all stops out action movie with big robots and lots of explosions, and it delivered. That’s why it made so much money. I can understand people being disappointed that it wasn’t more meaningful, but it didn’t pretend that it was going to be meaningful, even though it was life affirming in its own way (lucky I left the admission that I liked Transformers until the end so as not to taint the entire article).
When comparing something like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure with Looper, although they’re both movies featuring time travel, one is a comedy and one is a serious drama. We’re willing to forgive much more in a comedy because, while hopefully it contains some meaning, its ultimate aim is to make us laugh. If something doesn’t quite make sense, as long as it’s funny then it’s ok. In a drama like Looper where events that occur are central to the drama, those events need to make sense or the drama is lost, together with the meaning.
Johnson, and those who love the movie, excuse the plot holes, suggesting they can’t be avoided, that you just have to forget them and go along with the drama. The implication is that the plot holes are necessary to telling this particular story, but as we’ve seen that’s far from the case.
Johnson said there are many time travel related things he could have explained or elaborated on, but he didn’t want to tie up the film with lots of unnecessary exposition. Completely understandable right? Well not really. I would contend that if the logic held together better, the movie could have gotten away with much less exposition than it actually ended up with.
Johnson also admitted that he rushed through the time travel aspect of the story so he could concentrate on the dramatic stuff, “How to get time travel to lay down so the audience isn’t having to process the rules of it the whole time”. As he explains it, taking example from The Terminator which apparently got all the time travel stuff out of the way as quickly as possible to spend time on the action. The difference is that while The Terminator didn’t dwell on the time travel aspect, Cameron made sure that the time travel was logically sound. Had a little more time been spent on the time travel logic in Looper, or had a re-write focussed on that aspect, the drama would have been elevated to far greater heights, and the movie would have had much more depth and meaning.
This story could have been a great tragedy. Instead, in a manipulated attempt to insert meaning that it didn’t earn, it forced a happy ending. There were so many things it wanted to say, but it missed the mark on pretty much all of them. If it had held back just a few things, it could have had a strong ending and message and all the slightly illogical elements could have been forgiven, if not forgotten. Too many questions were asked without being answered, as if Johnson had all these ideas but didn’t follow through with them.
The trouble is that Looper came so close to actually working, it just tried include too many “cool” ideas. It feels a bit like the first draft of a story where you throw in everything that might work before weeding out what doesn’t need to be there, and making what’s left stronger.
Great movies ask a number of questions, and develop a number of plots, but then bring them all to fruition in the climax – ideally a single decision and action that defines everyone’s journey and provides emotional catharsis for all of them. Looper could have been one of those movies, but instead ended up being a house of cards. If you question any part of it, the whole thing comes crashing down.
What I Learned
1) Stories evolve.
Sometimes the initial idea, the spark, ends up not being right for the story that it inspires. Killing that baby for the good of the story can mean the difference between a good story and a great one. And hey, you still have that cool concept that you can potentially use in a whole new story.
Sometimes stories evolve into a different type of story than you planned to tell. If your story becomes a tragedy, then let it be a tragedy. You can’t just tack on “and they lived happily ever after” to the end of a tragedy and call it a happy ending.
2) Don’t make your story more complicated than it needs to be.
Don’t introduce complex justifications for things that already have simple ones, and don’t use too many ideas. A simple premise allows you to really focus on the drama.
Speaking of complexity, something you might have noticed throughout this analysis is that my first solution was almost always more complex than it needed to be. After getting that idea out, I invariably came up with a much simpler way to accomplish the same goal. I hope you didn’t mind that I chose to keep all of it in so you could see my process, because it’s a great demonstration of just how useful re-writing really is.
3) You have to earn your ending.
Even Johnson talks at great length about how important it is to earn the ending, to give the audience emotional catharsis. You can’t just tell the audience what your movie is about at the end, especially if the rest of the movie doesn’t support it. The events of the movie have to support what you want the movie to say. If you suspect that a voice over might help explain the end of your movie, then the movie probably hasn’t done its job – much like a joke that needs to be explained. A voice over at the end of the movie should only ever be used to provide closure.
If you cheat, and the audiences catches you cheating, then you definitely won’t have earned your ending.
And of course the most important lesson:
4) A coherant and logical plot is vital for a movie to have any real meaning.
If the plot makes no sense, the ending loses its value. It’s so important to establish the rules of your universe, and then play within those rules. If you disregard the movie’s rules, or if you make giant leaps of logic, you will likely leave the audience behind, losing their interest and emotional investment.