The Philosophy Of Looper: Exploring Identity Through Time

%name The Philosophy Of Looper: Exploring Identity Through Time

On Friday, I published my largely spoiler-free review of Rian Johnson’s Looper. After seeing the film, I felt very strongly that the core essence of Johnson’s narrative should not be revealed to the viewer beforehand, which made it difficult to discuss the film in any true depth. But Looper absolutely deserves detailed critical discussion, so today, I am revisiting the film to dive much deeper into the text, without worrying about spoilers. If you have not seen Looper, stop reading now. This article is intended for those who are familiar with the film.

In my initial review, I described Looper as “a refreshingly focused and thoughtful human drama that uses time travel not as a vehicle for action or mind-bending plot mechanics, but to ask some vast ethical questions about how personality and identity are forged through time.” What I am referring to, of course, is the part of the narrative I kept out of my review: Young Joe’s relationship with single-mother Sara (Emily Blunt) and her telekinetic son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon). It plays into the larger narrative – Old Joe wants to kill Cid, who may grow up into the fearsome Rainmaker – but Johnson treats much of this material as character study, building relationships gradually and permitting his actors time to evoke complex, challenging emotions.

It certainly isn’t the kind of material one thinks of when pondering ‘action sci-fi,’ and that’s exactly what makes Looper so refreshing. It is definitely science fiction, but it isn’t – except in brief, contained bursts – action. The film is a small and intimate morality play, examining the philosophical construct of identity by presenting elliptical patterns of developing personality. Johnson asserts that every action a person takes can be traced back to another action – either acted upon one or executed oneself – and though this is experienced linearly in normal existence, time travel – and the presence, for Joe, of two ‘selves’ – creates circular paths that allow the characters and the viewer to better understand how identity operates.

Philosophy of this sort is, of course, an integral component of good science fiction. The genre allows writers to imagine concepts and scenarios foreign to present-day audiences, and in broadening the narrative canvas, the space for philosophical exploration grows as well. Asking and answering big questions is easier when the situations themselves seem impossibly vast. The beauty of sci-fi is that while its inventive concepts create this sense of enlargement, the action is still typically grounded in a world we can recognize, on some level, as our own (this is one clear distinction between fantasy and sci-fi). By mastering the relatable and fantastic, the artist’s philosophical aspirations are emboldened.

This is what Rian Johnson does in Looper. The premise behind the setting is large and ambitious – time travel, dual selves, telekinesis, and more – but the actual content of the narrative is grounded in terms most viewers are familiar with: Motherhood, child rearing, greed, addiction, etc. The questions posed – about the development of identity and the morality of condemning those who have not yet acted – are narratively rooted in the film’s sci-fi elements, but play out on a more intimate, universally relatable stage.

Those two questions mentioned above are inextricably linked, as our evolving understanding of each constantly informs the other. Old Joe’s desire to kill the wicked Rainmaker as a child is the core moral dilemma, but it is the film’s analysis of identity that gives us the tools to answer – or, at least, ponder – this ethical query.

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%name The Philosophy Of Looper: Exploring Identity Through Time

In this way, Johnson is actually asking many of the same questions Enlightenment thinker John Locke posed in his Essay on Human Understanding, one of the first texts to explore the nature of consciousness and identification. Locke argued that the concept of self “depends on consciousness, not on substance,” by which he means identity is separate from one’s physical body or even one’s soul. Through consciousness, we experience our own thoughts and actions, as well as those of the people and world around us; by continually being conscious, we form and evolve our own identities. Consciousness is highly perceptible to change, as experience can differ greatly from day to day, but we tend to ignore this fact, judging the identity of others based on physical presence.

This, of course, is what Old Joe does in attempting to kill the Rainmaker as a child. He sees the Rainmaker as a set, concrete identity, and assigns it to the same body throughout time. Locke would argue that five-year-old Cid is not the Rainmaker, however, for the Rainmaker’s conscious is different than the boy’s. They share a body, but their identities will diverge greatly over time from years of influential experiences.

One does not need to look to John Locke, of course, to understand why Old Joe should not view Cid and the Rainmaker as one. Johnson has already summarized this argument in the presence of – and relationship between – Old and Young Joe.

They are physically the same person, something Johnson is extremely careful to emphasize in two ways. First, he has Joseph Gordon-Levitt wearing prosthetics to look more like Bruce Willis, a step that constantly reminds us how these men are connected. Second, he includes a montage, shortly after Old Joe’s appearance, that illustrates how Young Joe grew into Old Joe, wordlessly illustrating the many steps Joe took to move from petty hitman to ruthless, hardened killer. Johnson is adamant we understand that these men do, in fact, share the exact same body. In substance, they are identical.

Yet we view them as distinct entities, on both conscious and subconscious levels. It is more than just an age disparity. Young Joe is a wandering junkie, living without any purpose except to reach his next hit. Old Joe, on the other hand, is all drive, arriving with a plan and determined to see it through no matter what. Young Joe is physically capable, but hardly adept as a shooter, fighter, or killer. Old Joe is practically a machine, an unstoppable force of rage and precision that conquers every foe – including Young Joe – in his path. Perhaps most importantly, Young Joe has a dormant but strong sense of compassion, one that blossoms during his time with Sara and Cid. Old Joe’s compassion seemingly died with his wife, as he responds coldly to most scenarios and is willing to slaughter mass numbers of people, including children (and when doing so does bring out his emotional side, the reaction seems so foreign that he can barely tolerate the pain).

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%name The Philosophy Of Looper: Exploring Identity Through Time

For their actions and attitudes, we have no choice but to view Young and Old Joe as two distinct, separate people. This is, roughly, the film’s equivalent of Locke’s argument: That because our conscious self is forged through the years by experience, by moments of trauma and transcendence alike, we may not bear the same identity at two different points in time. If Young Joe has not felt and lost true love, he cannot be Old Joe, for those key events are not part of his conscious. Reversely, Old Joe cannot be Young Joe, for he has lived through hard years Young Joe cannot fathom, and his consciousness had morphed into something else entirely.

We understand this principle by observing the actions and interactions of Young and Old Joe. In doing so, we gain a deeper comprehension of identity’s inconsistent nature. This, in turn, colors our view of the moral dilemma: Is killing Cid justified? The only way it can be is if we can see Cid and the Rainmaker as one. We cannot do this, however, for they exist at two very different points in the timeline, and we have already determined that Young and Old Joe – who come from those exact same points on the timeline – are separate identities.

It is a simple bit of logic-based argumentation, though Johnson thankfully dramatizes all this in much warmer terms than what I have described. The logical process of elimination is present in the subtext, but on the surface, it is our emotional reactions to the characters that dictate how we view the scenario.

Sara, for example, is a highly sympathetic character, presented without the complex moral ambiguity of Young or Old Joe. She is not a perfect person, but she loves her son deeply and has devoted her life entirely to his protection, even when parenting becomes a literal nightmare. There is a beautiful, haunting sequence midway through the film, before we know Cid is telekinetic, where Sara is terrified by one of her son’s angry outbursts, and locks herself in a safe to hide from him. We do not get the sense then that she fears any physical danger, but is instead unable to cope with the awful, difficult feelings of her son’s eruption. From this moment forward, it is impossible not to sympathize with her, for there is a universal difficulty to her scenario anyone who has parented or been parented can understand. When she returns to her son, strong once more, to reassure him of her unconditional love, our sympathy and investment is only further solidified.

The emotions we feel watching the relationship between Sara and her son further fuels our view of Cid as an entity separate from the Rainmaker. Again using Locke’s terminology, young Cid is not entirely Tabula Rasa, but he is close enough to ‘blank’ that the gentle, guiding hand of his mother still matters immensely. She can save him, in more ways than one, and given what Cid turns out to be, it is apparent long before Old Joe arrives at the farm that something terrible is bound to happen to her.

There is, for this reason, a certain inevitability to the final showdown, as all the pieces move into place and it becomes clear that Old Joe is directly responsible for creating the evil he seeks to destroy. His bullet will miss the child and murder the mother, planting the seeds of rage in Cid that will flourish over a lifetime of isolation and resentment. Again, we return to the idea of circularity: Cid grows into the Rainmaker, who destroyed Old Joe’s life, who returns to his youth to kill Cid, and thus creates the Rainmaker.

Which, for the sake of nitpicking, creates a rather gaping logical gap in the film’s time travel physics. This elliptical structure is similar to James Cameron’s Terminator films, where there is no way to alter time; the effects of temporal tinkering always exist, and cannot be escaped (John Connor is conceived because he sends his own father back in time to rescue his mother, with no clear inception point for the cycle).

But earlier portions of Looper present a linear approach to time travel, a la Back to the Future, where reality is malleable and time travel effects are not seen until actions are taken. For instance: When Joe’s friend Seth fails to close his loop, crime boss Abe sends a message to Old Seth by torturing Young Seth, making body parts disappear. If elliptical time logic were possible, Old Seth would always have those scars and missing limbs, because it would be a fixed, set event. Old Joe’s creation of the Rainmaker is presented as a circular, set event, one that creates and perpetuates itself without origin, which should, based on other events in the film, be impossible under established time travel rules.

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But that is neither here nor there. By the time Old Joe is ready to pull the trigger, we beg him not to for the myriad of reasons Johnson has provided. Our understanding of identity forces us to view Cid as innocent, our affection for the boy as he exists makes us protective, and our love and sympathy for Sara tells us she can save this world far more effectively than any firearm.

But it is, in fact, a firearm that saves the day. Young Joe’s blunderbuss, discharged at his own heart in a split-second decision, erases Old Joe from existence and saves Sara, thus preventing Cid from ever growing into the Rainmaker.

It is the trickiest moment in the film from a moral standpoint. Joe’s actions do great amounts of good – not just for Cid and Sara, but for the future population that will be spared the Rainmaker’s terror – but to achieve that good, he engages in the same morally reputable act of violence that Old Joe tried to accomplish. He kills the source to remove the very possibility of the eventuality. It may be suicide, but he is still taking the life of an innocent – himself – to stop the actions of the guilty.

‘Innocent’ is obviously not the easiest term to apply to Young Joe, as he is a paid assassin and junkie. But he is, by the film’s own argumentation, innocent of the crime at hand. His conscious is not Old Joe’s conscious, and just as Cid cannot be held accountable for the actions of the Rainmaker, Young Joe should not be blamed for the actions of his older self.

There are complications, of course. Unlike Cid, Young Joe is many, many years past Tabula Rasa. The choices he has made, on his own, directly forge the path that ends in Old Joe’s killing spree. Becoming a looper in the first place makes the connection between Young and Old Joe much closer than the one between Cid and the Rainmaker, and one suspects that Young Joe is at least partially aware of this when he pulls the trigger. He had his shot at life. Cid has not. Simple pragmatism makes the choice clear.

Pragmatism is, after all, the pervading factor in the finale, as the only possible way for Young Joe to save Sara is to commit suicide. It has already been established what a pathetically short range the blunderbuss has; Old Joe is using a precision weapon at point blank range; Sara has no way to defend herself; and Cid has passed out from his gunshot wound. Taking logical stock of the situation, turning the blunderbuss on himself is the only way Young Joe can stop the Rainmaker’s creation.

This should not, however, stop us from analyzing the complex morality of the scenario. It is, I believe, Johnson’s intention for us to leave the theatre feeling extremely uneasy about Joe’s final decision. The day has been saved by the very same action we came, over the course of the film, to view as evil. It is an inherently messy – brilliantly messy, one might say – conclusion.

One can speculate for days about all the emotions that compel Joe to pull the trigger – self-loathing, nobility, love, fear, etc. – but one thing is for sure: By doing something so relatively selfless, Joe is not nearly as hopeless as he may believe himself to be. He has given his life to shield others, and achieved redemption in the process. Were he to continue living, this action proves he could be a good man. The capacity exists within him. He could be a good lover to Sara, and a good father figure to Cid. Pulling the trigger erases Old Joe in more ways than one. Not only will that violent, bitter man cease to exist in a literal sense, but he shall also disappear philosophically. The conscious mind that could act with such purity of heart could never develop into a raging killing machine.

By committing suicide, Joe has resolved his disparate identities into one strong conscious, formed from the best of Young and Old Joe; the young man’s compassion and the old man’s strength, together, for those final moments, as one.

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

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  • Jeremy Lebens

    Well said Jonathan. Perhaps the best thing I’ve read on the film yet.

  • DJ

    Very good analysis. I still have one pervading thought that you touch upon regarding the malleable versus fixed aspect of time travel and how altering the present can affect the future. While very convincing and logical, there is no definitive proof that Old Joe killing Sara prevents Cid from becoming the Rainmaker. How, in a world such as the one they were living in, do we know a more gruesome fate does not befall Sara, a fate that Cid witnesses? Yes, the Rainmaker does target loopers but, at the same time, he is a scourge on the entire world. The truth is, we can only hypothesize the events that transform the damaged CId to something greater and more evil. It’s one of those things I love about time travel movies and the conundrum they often create.

    • shutup

      I agree 100%. We are never presented with the conclusion of what becomes of Sid; but it leaves us to paint the future in our own image. We are presented with the fact that the child is capable of great evil, coupled with the paradox of time travel and nurture vs nature, gives us many variables to ponder. Was Sid on the path to great evil regardless? Is there anything Joe can do do prevent the future horrors? The fact the story ends so open is probably the main reason I like it; the conclusion can be painted by my emotions the day I watch it.

  • Guest

    This is excellent writing. I am considering writing a seminar paper on Looper for my Philosophy BA. Your analysis was thought provoking and helpful. Thank you.

  • JohnnyJamesDenney

    This is excellent writing.

  • Kaylah

    This analysis is awesome. I have to write a paper on this movie and you helped me to greatly understand the more philosophical points of it. Great job!

  • Wade Wilson

    I really do not want to go on a rant here though i most certainly could do so, however I personally found the concept of the film to be absurb riddled with needless BS (why not teleport people into volcanoes? Why needlessly involve other people?That aspect of the plot was just stupid), the time-travel weakly writen (the scars appearing and limbs disappearing was pretty funny) and quite possibly the lamest use of telekenesis I’ve ever encountered (I could go on forever…).
    It’s too bad, I kept hearing good things about this film but the flaws were like sore thumbs stabbing me in the eyes… impossible to ignore.

  • Afshin Nejat

    It is not a bad shot, kid. But real philosophy goes much deeper than this. It is much more extreme than hashing abstractions through the lens of an artistic fantasy, or vice versa. You will find out, perhaps the hard way, that REAL philosophy is much more intense, and has consequences much more absolute. For an exercise in this sort of philosophy, come close to death a few times. If you don’t have the luxury of doing that, see if you can validly “speculate” upon it with such intensity as to vicariously come close to the real thing. If that should happen, and it inevitably will with or without your provocation, then you will know the real meaning of Socrates’ words. Until then, back to your books, because you haven’t even gotten the gist of them them yet. Stop reading Locke and start reading Zhuangzi, then you might have a chance. Otherwise… your fate is sealed.