Like a punch in the gut

Written and directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt. Released on DVD, 2012, by Sony Pictures Digital Inc.
Rated “R” for strong violence, sexuality, nudity and drug content.

February 13, 2013 | Artbeat
Reviewed by Vic Thiessen |
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as the young Joe, in Looper, a film that challenges the myth of redemptive violence.

Looper is an independent, critically acclaimed, futuristic, neo-noir, time-travel thriller. By itself, this is a unique set of characteristics guaranteed to attract viewers like me.

Ironically, the graphic nature of the film’s violence is one reason why it is better than most action films. Looper hits you like a punch in the gut; its violence is not there to be enjoyed, but to make you feel uncomfortable, which is what violence should do.

Looper takes place in Kansas in 2044 and 2074. Time travel is invented in 2074, but immediately outlawed. For the mob bosses in 2074, however, time travel becomes a convenient method of executing and disposing of enemies at a time when it has become otherwise difficult to do so. So they send their enemies back to 2044, where a looper is waiting to execute them and dispose of their bodies. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, one of those loopers.

One of the drawbacks for Joe is that he is required to kill his future self, who is 30 years older than him, after which he will be well paid and can retire to enjoy his remaining 30 years. But Joe’s future self, played by Bruce Willis, outsmarts him and gets away, setting in motion two desperate chases: Joe hunting for the older Joe, and the older Joe hunting for a child who will grow up to become the dreaded Rainmaker.

Gordon-Levitt’s performance is so outstanding, that we are drawn to Joe in spite of his many character flaws. In fact, all of the key actors are outstanding, as are the screenplay, score and cinematography, which immerse us completely in Looper’s dystopian future.

But Looper’s best feature ventures into a philosophical/theological realm rarely glimpsed in films today; it is one of those rare ultra-violent films that actually challenges the myth of redemptive violence, the idea that violence is frequently necessary to overcome evil and save the world.

Spoiler alert

In order to explore this realm, it is necessary to discuss the ending of the film. Do not read further if you are planning to watch this film.

When the young Joe first kills off his future self and lives the 30 years of his retirement, he becomes a cold, self-absorbed, violent man who wastes his life until he falls in love with a woman who saves him from what he has become. That woman is killed by the Rainmaker’s men, which is why the older Joe is determined to return to the past and kill the child before he can grow up to become the Rainmaker.

Making Joe’s task more difficult is that he can only narrow his target to one of three children and may thus have to kill two innocents before he finds the right one. His motive for these killings primarily seems to be the saving of his beloved’s life, but it may include the hope that he is ridding the future world of a Hitler-like figure.

So if we could go back in time and kill the young Hitler, should we do it? I think most people would not hesitate to say yes, but Looper suggests that such an action would only perpetuate the cycle of violence and that the only way to end that cycle is to change the conditions which created Hitler, not kill the young Hitler.

I was absolutely amazed when, following a life-transforming experience, the young Joe realizes what his older self has become, what the older Joe’s actions will lead to, how violence only begets more violence, and how the only life he has the right to alter is his own. Rejecting the path of violence, Joe chooses the path of compassion and self-sacrifice to save the world, thereby becoming a Christ-figure; until then, he had been portrayed as a Judas-figure.

This is filmmaking at its most insightful. While Looper is certainly not for everyone, I think it was one of the best films of 2012.

Vic Thiessen is Mennonite Church Canada’s chief administrative officer and Canadian Mennonite’s regular film reviewer.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as the young Joe, in Looper, a film that challenges the myth of redemptive violence.

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