Nearing the end of 2012 — the rumored moment of the world’s demise — director Rian Johnson is an optimist. He’s made a movie neither about the apocalypse nor a nostalgic period piece but on traveling to the future. “Looper,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the protagonist, Joe, and Bruce Willis also as a 30-years-older Joe, is set in the years 2042 and 2072, with a couple of montages from in between.
Joe is a hired gunman, or “looper,” whose job is to shoot people sent via time travel by the mob of the future. He lives a wild, fast life of expensive cars, extravagant nights out and a strange drug in the form of glittery eye droplets. Joe is saving up and practicing French so that he can escape the dark city he lives in along with his depraved, solitary lifestyle. His plans for Paris are interrupted when he finds his next target to be his future self. Older Joe, who now lives in Shanghai, has fought his way into the past so that he can kill a child named Sid before the kid grows up to become the mob leader, who has killed Joe’s wife. A chase commences between the two selves as younger Joe, who wants his own chance at life, must destroy his older self before the mob kills Joe as he is now.
The seed of this futuristic thriller came from a 3-page script written by Johnson 10 years ago. During our interview, the director commented on the literary catalysts that helped develop Looper into a feature film:
“When I wrote the short, it was right when I discovered Philip K. Dick, and I was in the middle of blowing through all of his books. I also think of Ray Bradbury, the master of what I love most about sci-fi: It uses magical constructs of funny technology to amplify a very human emotion.”
Cinematically, Johnson looked to “The Terminator” for its deft use of time travel and studied the textural diagram of “Witness” while maintaining suspense and momentum during the slower dialogues. “Looper” also draws from film noir, with its broken male hero, the Godlike figure who is corrupt (younger Joe’s boss) and the voice-over-driven framework.
Johnson stressed that although time travel was used as a springboard that sets up the plot, the film is ultimately not about this device. Instead, “Looper” relies on psychoanalytic structures of classical narratives and borrows from traditional cinema to pose a moral question — can we transcend our self-interest and sacrifice ourselves for the sake of progress?
For Gordon-Levitt, having the protagonist be morally ambiguous establishes a bridge between the realities of the viewing audience and the movie’s futuristic setting.
“The two main guys are both completely selfish,” Gordon-Levitt commented. “Even though older Joe is trying to protect his wife, he’s doing it out of selfishness. He’s trying to protect what’s his. And young Joe, same thing. I think it’s particularly intriguing to cast Bruce in that light, because we’re so used to seeing him as a hero.”
Younger Joe was based entirely on Willis’ acting mannerisms, not through imitating him as a young man but by studying Willis as he is today, spawning a new character rather than attempting a duplicate.
“He didn’t look at ‘Moonlighting’ episodes or the first ‘Die Hard.’ But he watched recent movies like ‘Sin City’ quite a bit,” said Johnson. “Bruce even recorded the voice-over at the beginning of Looper of himself saying it and sent it to Joe during preproduction.”
Even with this meticulous approach and the fancy facial prosthetics, there were gaps between Gordon-Levitt’s and Willis’ Joe. The two never emotionally connect or come to terms with each other.
Gordon-Levitt responded by reminding us that the two Joes are “at odds, they want different things” and that the story is actually about this inability to look beyond self-interest. The stubbornness of both younger and older Joe highlights the central message of the film — “the perpetual loop of blaming others,” of Oedipus wanting to kill his father.
Joe’s mother sold him when he was a young child, prompting him to enter the profession of killing as a way to survive the city’s major recession. Like Oedipus desiring his inaccessible mother, Joe asks his girlfriend (Piper Perabo) — a stripper and single mom — to comb her fingers through his hair, just as he remembers his mother had done.
The Freudian triumvirate between the id-ego-superego are at play in this narrative. Sid, whose name alludes to the id associated with unrestrained libido, possesses destructive powers that turn on whenever he is angered. The tense dynamics between older and younger Joe represent the division between the superego, who wants to repress Sid’s potential, and the ego, caught in between.
The selfless act of Sid’s mother, Sarah (Emily Blunt), who stands in between her son and older Joe, is what breaks “Looper” apart from the rather rigid, broken-record tale of the father-son paradigm.
Johnson commented that it is when we are “out of the vertical dirtiness of the city and in the horizontal cleanness of Sarah’s world” that Joe is able to clearly see his moral decision. When many films stage reenactments of the Oedipal complex, “Looper” takes a leap forward to provide an alternative to stop its perpetuity.