Not surprisingly, the main sticking point with why my friends are divided over the mind-bending sci-fi thriller Looper is the time travel. (Warning: major spoilers herein!) The friend I saw it with and I both totally bought into the logic that Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) had to kill Old Joe (Bruce Willis) in order to be able to become Old Joe… but then once he was older and had lost his wife to the mob, he was going to go try and kill the little kid who will grow up to become the mob boss The Rainmaker.
It also made (enough) sense that the only way Young Joe could prevent Cyd from being traumatized enough to grow up into this psychopath was for Young Joe to murder himself so he never grows up or has any reason to come back into the past. Sure, suicide in time travel is an overused trope, but it was effective in this story which has already laid the groundwork for commentary on self-destruction in the beginning with Joe’s hedonistic lifestyle and drug habit.
Well, one of our mutual friends derided this “twist” as a narrative cop-out, mostly because he didn’t think it made sense for Young Joe to narrate the whole movie and then say, “And then I killed myself.” This didn’t really bother me, but I couldn’t articulate why. The best argument I could make was for parallel plotlines, but it wasn’t until I saw this infographic from Noah Iliinsky that it made sense.
Iliinsky is an expert in data visualization and drew up this nifty diagram for Wired, showing all of the various paths for each of Looper‘s main characters. As he explains it, time travel stories deal with time in two ways:
1) Immutable past: What’s happened in the past can’t be changed, which makes the future inevitable.
2) Malleable history: Commonly known as “the butterfly effect,” where your actions in the past change the future. If I might add, in these stories people still know what that future is, often because it’s the reason they went back in the first place.
But in Looper, we see both in effect:
Again, it’s tied up in the basic premise: The only way for Old Joe to live his happy life and then have it ripped away from him is to — as Young Joe — kill his older self as a looper. But once he gets caught up in the consequences of Old Joe going after Cyd and his mother Sara (Emily Blunt), Young Joe realizes that if Old Joe kills Sara, Cyd will become The Rainmaker. Of course, I’ve seen arguments that he could’ve just shot Old Joe in the hand… except that Old Joe would’ve still found a way to kill Sara and/or Cyd, because he loved his wife that much. In this way, Young Joe — who’s never been happy, who’s always been looking forward to his post-looper retirement as the prize for his ugly job — has to rob himself of all happiness by killing himself.
But he doesn’t realize this until he sees Old Joe live out the thirty years that were supposed to belong to him. Like I said, parallel plotlines! Without them, we wouldn’t have any emotional depth.
Of course, I still kinda wish the movie had ended with Cyd becoming The Rainmaker anyway. Because for a five-year-old, he’s got plenty of emotional baggage even with a living mother to take care of him. You don’t make someone explode in your living room and escape from that without some sort of complex, whether it’s self-loathing or thinking you’re God. I think that would’ve been a great nudge to us, additionally, a way of saying, “No matter what drastic measures you take, some events are fated to happen.” As Iliinsky points out, there’s a chance that still could’ve happened after the credits started rolling. That’s up to us to decide.
Photos: Alan Markfield/Looper, LLC and Noah Iliinsky