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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