For his trickery, the Greek Gods condemned Sisyphus to the underworld. For his punishment, Sisyphus was tasked to push a rock uphill. No matter Sisyphus’ efforts, the rock would roll back down the hill before Sisyphus reached the summit, leaving him no choice but to start the task anew.
In The Terminator, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehl) and The Termintator (Anrold Schwarzenegger) are sent back to the past from a future where robots have risen up against mankind. The presence of both Kyle and The Terminator create the future apocalypse for different reasons. Kyle’s romance with Sarah Connor, whom he has been sent from the past to protect, leads to Sarah bearing their child, who becomes the future resistance leader, John Connor. The Terminator’s remains, following its destruction, are obtained by the U.S. government, leading to the creation of Skynet, the computer system behind the robotic uprising.
Time travel stories are a realisation of fate. Characters travel backwards in time, hopeful that they can change their path, only to find that like Sisyphus’ rock rolling back down the hill, their actions in the past perpetuate their future, binding them to an infinite struggle to reach the summit, their infinite loop.
At its heart, Looper is about a man’s inability to escape his destiny of becoming a monster.
The world of Looper
Set in a quietly dystopian vision of Kansas City in 2044, Looper exists in world where time travel is invented in the 2070s and exploited by criminal syndicates who send their victims back 30 years, where assassins, called Loopers, dispatch them.
Looper‘s main character, Joe (Joeseph Gordon-Levitt), is a Looper, and like all other Loopers, will one day be forced to kill his future self from the 2070s. This act, called ‘closing your loop’, was created by the crime syndicates for fear of the unforeseen consequences if a Looper, later in life, interacted with his victims from the 2070s thereby endangering causality. Nor do the Loopers know when they are about to kill their older self, as their victims arrive from the future with their faces covered by sacks.
The plot begins with the Loopers around Joe closing their loops with increasing frequency, on the command of a mysterious new figure in the 2070s who has taken over all five crime syndicates, known simply as The Rainmaker. Old Joe quickly arrives and escapes, hell bent on killing The Rainmaker; who in 2044, is a child living in Kansas City. Joe attempts to hunt down and kill Old Joe or face a gruesome death at the hands of the crime syndicates.
‘I could see how you turned bad’: What Joe becomes
(Old Joe becomes what he is meant to be)
Before Old Joe arrives, local crime boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) reveals what Joe would have been if he had not become a Looper. Speaking with fatherly affection, Abe recalls recruiting Joe as the youngest Looper ever, after he caught Joe robbing one of his fronts.
‘This kid, like an animal…. you looked at me and I could see it…the bad version of your life… I could see how you turned bad. So I changed it, I cleaned you up and put a gun in your hand…I gave you something that was yours.’
Abe’s prophecy sadly rings true after Old Joe’s arrival. We witness the timeline Old Joe comes from, where Joe kills his older self and embarks on his retirement. Joe heads to Shanghai and falls into the bad path of his life which Abe foresaw. Squandering his retirement fund in 7 years, Joe becomes a psychopathic assassin and gang leader, spreading violence and spilling blood across Shanghai.
Old Joe appears reformed when he meets up with Joe in their favourite diner, condemning Young Joe as ‘A killer…a junkie. A fucking child mentality…what’s mine, my life…you’re so self-absorbed’. Yet Old Joe has only worsened, willing to kill children he suspects might be the Rainmaker so that he can still meet his wife and never lose her.
The inevitable bad path
(The Eiffel Tower behind the needle, a sign of what could have been and what will always happen)
Joe’s work as a Looper and his wife are both a temporary leash restraining the monster he is. Once back in the past, Old Joe completes his transformation when faced by Abe’s gang, butchering them while he takes on the air of a demonic figure, bloodied and silent staring back at Abe’s security camera before killing him as well.
Before his death, Abe recognises that Old Joe was destined to descend into the bad version of his life, shouting out to Old Joe that
‘I guess I put the gun in that kid’s hand, huh? I guess everything comes back around.’
Sisyphus can push the rock each day, straining to reach the summit, but every day will begin anew, with Sisyphus still struggling uphill. Joe, like a figure found in Greek myth, is predestined to follow ‘the bad path’.
When we witness Old Joe’s timeline unfold, a model Eiffel Tower is briefly glimpsed in the background as Joe spirals further into addiction. The tower evokes an alternative life for Joe, where he would have gone to his original retirement choice of France instead of China. A needle lays before the tower dominating the shot, symbolising that Joe’s choices throughout life have no weight. The needle would have still been there even if he had moved to France, leading Joe down the bad path Abe foresaw. It is inevitable because of one moment which shaped Joe forever, the loss of his mother as a child.
‘What’s mine’ and ‘What’s yours’
Joe perceives himself in Cid, Sara’s troubled young son and revealed to be the future Rainmaker. When asked about his mother by Cid, Joe reveals that she sold him for drugs. Joe escaped and in his words,
‘I saw myself over and over again, killing those men that bought me and got my mom on what she was on, until I met a man in the city (Abe) who put a gun in my hand, gave me something that was mine’.
The loss of Joe’s mother forges his looping destiny of ‘the bad path’. Fending for himself, Joe becomes like the gang members and drugs who forced his mother to abandon him, adopting their mentality of ‘what’s mine’, even praising these men to Cid as ‘the only kind of man there is’. Thrust into a life with no one to guide him, Joe walks through life fending for himself at the cost of anyone who crosses him, be it his friend Seth, his victims from the future, or the children he believes to be The Rainmaker.
Joe learns to change
Joe appears just as selfish as Old Joe, displaying no remorse for betraying his friend Seth and hunting Old Joe in order to save himself from Abe. Joe begins to change once he meets Cid, seeing himself in the troubled boy as they share their traumas with each other. Despite discovering that Cid is the future Rainmaker, Joe spares Cid, realising that unlike himself, Cid still has his real mother Sara, offering Cid the chance of being nurtured and guided away from his destiny of becoming the Rainmaker.
By sparing Cid, Joe rejects his ‘what’s mine’ attitude, recognizing in his final meeting with Old Joe that his selfishness will cause him to become the monstrous Old Joe. When faced with the opportunity from Old Joe to walk away from Cid and Sara and ‘live your life’ Joe rejects the offer, screaming ‘Your life, my life, becoming you!’.
The rock rolls back
(A constant loop)
Realising that Old Joe’s actions in the past will perpetuate Cid becoming the Rainmaker, Joe kills himself to prevent an endless loop of Old Joe and Cid both trying to kill the other to save their loved one.
Yet without Old Joe’s presence in the past, none of the events leading up to Joe’s death can happen. Once in the past, Old Joe irrevocably changes future events, not only creating the Rainmaker, but causing Joe to sacrifice himself for Sara and Cid. Joe may remove Old Joe from existing in the past, but the events in Looper are permanently changed by Old Joe’s presence. Old Joe’s sudden absence in the past causes a paradox in the past, resetting the timeline.
A loop can be a single circle, or two circles conjoined at the hip. Old Joe’s hunt for the Rainmaker causes one circle as Joe foresaw, with Sara’s death and Cid becoming the Rainmaker. Joe’s sacrifice causes a second circle. His death leads to a paradox, resetting the timeline we witness in Looper . The two circles feed into one another like a loop, with Old Joe returning after living his life, desperate to save his wife, while Joe realises what he will become and resets the timeline. If the timeline resets, Old Joe does not change the timeline. Thus Joe will still lead the life that Old Joe had lead, becoming the monster we witness in Looper.
(Old Joe’s loop, gagged and dead)
Over and over again, Joe has lived the bad path, returning as Old Joe, creating the Rainmaker as he constantly fails to save his wife, while the Rainmaker searches for Old Joe. Looper concludes with Joe making the only choice he can, to reset the timeline and to refuse his task of pushing the rock back uphill in an infinite loop. Looper concludes with Cid still bearing a scarred jaw like the Rainmaker, a hint that Cid is still destined to become a monster, despite Joe’s efforts and that ultimately, Joe and Cid are two men both walking the bad path towards each other.
Joe may change as a person and sacrifice himself but his actions change nothing, just merely reset the loop like Sisyphus’ rock rolling back down.
By Saul Shimmin
Looper is available now on Netflix in the U.K. It has been available for a while, so watch it before it goes!
Rian Johnson’s next film, a little piece called Star Wars: The Last Jedi is quickly approaching its Christmas release date. Read Hagood’s thoughts about the recent behind the scenes video from Disney here.