Looper is not a film about futuristic gangsters, strung out hitmen or time travel. It’s a film about human connection and how the absence of it can destroy you.
Writer/director Rian Johnson lets this existential theme play out against a backdrop 30 years into the future where Abe (Jeff Daniels) has traveled back in time to manage a group of hitmen known as Loopers. Because forensics is so advanced in 2074, it became nearly impossible for the mafia to get away with murder but time travel solved all of that. The mob finds its targets, binds them, puts a sack over their heads and sends them 30 years back in time to be killed by Loopers. For 2074, it’s no body, no crime and as far as 2044 is concerned, those people are still alive.
It seems like it all works out pretty well for the Loopers too, who are paid in bars of silver strapped to the backs of each victim. They have fast cars, cool guns, women, drugs. There is one catch though – eventually the Loopers all have to kill their future selves, thus closing their loop. They have 30 years and an untold amount of cash to spend from the time they kill their future to the day when they close their loop and meet their past.
One would think Abe would have a difficult time signing people up for a job that has suicide as a requirement but Abe’s smart about who he chooses to recruit. He chooses people who have nothing to lose, people for whom the draw of instant gratification is irresistible. Abe chooses junkies and abandoned street kids.
He chooses people like Joe, our anti-hero played by Joseph Gordon Levitt. Joe doesn’t understand what it means to be connected to someone. He’s never felt that. His mother sold him to a gang when he was young so that she could buy drugs. Joe’s only salvation came in the form of Abe, who gave him a gun and taught him to kill. At times, Joe tries to find moments of connection, like with a prostitute played by Piper Perabo, but Joe is surrounded by people who are just like him, devoid of connection.
In 2044, Joe is a lost cause and he knows it.
But 2072 Joe, played by Bruce Willis, isn’t a lost cause. He does know what it means to connect to someone. He’s been in love. So when it’s time for him to meet his past, he does everything he can to get back to his future. Old Joe does everything he can to get back to that feeling of connection and he needs his past self to help him do it.
This is where the movie takes a slightly unexpected turn. In 2044, Joe is so devoid of connection that he cannot even identify with himself. He sees his future self as a mere obstacle to his present goals. Joe doesn’t want to help his future incarnation. He wants him dead and he wants his payday.
Now a marked man himself, for failing to close his loop, young Joe chases his future across Kansas all the while being pursued by the mob. And this is where the movie takes a really unexpected turn and ends up at a sugar cane farm managed by Emily Blunt. It’s instinctual to think that her character Sara is there only to inject some romance into the story but her role serves a much deeper purpose. Sara, who lives on the farm with her young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) , is a mirror image of Joe’s mother. She is struggling to connect with the child she abandoned years before for a life of partying, for a life unconnected.
Cid is more than resistant to Sara’s affection. Joe grows to see himself in this sweet but emotionally wounded little boy and the two bond over a shared history. However, when it is revealed that Sara’s abandonment of her son has had dangerous consequences, Joe wonders if Cid is more like himself than he realized and already beyond saving.
The underlying, and sometimes very overt, theme of connection is truly at the center of the story. The element of time travel is only introduced to open the conversation about human connection and the gangster-like environment provides the catalyst for the story to move forward. The meat of the story is in the philosophical questions raised by the film. What would happen if we lived our lives without feeling connected to someone else? What kind of person would we become? Is it ever possible to recover from that kind of lost human experience or do we forever remain damaged by that void?
The outcome of the film hinges on how young Joe chooses to answer to that question. Throughout the film, Joe never makes the choices you, or his future self, think he’s going to make and that keeps the movie fresh and worth the watch.