Theme can be a tricky thing in film; some people enjoy finding underlying causes and recurring ideas, others are wary of over-analysis or ignore it altogether. For some of us, it’s not enough to just see the events of the narrative, we want to know the why along with the what: The Shining‘s Jack Torrence tries to kill his family. Why? He’s driven crazy by isolation. Or Kill Bill‘s Beatrix Kiddo goes on a killing spree after being wronged by her former partner and team of assassin colleagues. Why? They underestimated the power of a mother’s love. Rian Johnson’s Looper would be a great film without the thematic subtleties scattered throughout its scenes, but after all the effects, the mind blowing chronology business, and everything else, this film is a lot smarter and craftier than you think. It’s got a theme, and it’s a good one.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Joe, a specialized assassin who routinely shoots and disposes of hits sent to him via time-travel by criminal organizations from the future. He and the other “Loopers” lead relatively routine lives; they conduct business with Blunderbusses, collect silver bars as payment, and go out to clubs together while the rest of the populace is shown to be much less comfortable living in tents on the streets, stealing goods to survive. Also common are TKs (people who are openly skilled in telekinesis) who can levitate objects but aren’t useful for much else. Joe narrates and explains things with nonchalance, but his drug habit and relationships (or lack thereof) with women suggest there’s more to him than he’s leading on. Later, when an older version of himself (Bruce Willis) shows up as a target–an unfortunate occupational hazard–Joe hesitates, lets his loop run, and the chase begins.
It’s crucial not to get too tied up in the time travel elements here, because over-focusing on them distracts from the here and now. A good way to stay anchored is to stay in Joe’s present, whichever Joe you’re watching. There’s a segment just after Old Joe’s second time on the execution sheet that will seem like it’s cheating a little, but it really only serves to explain Old Joe’s experiences, his motivations, and the life he led until he came back from the future. Soon after there comes a time where the two (versions of the same person) want distinctly different things for themselves, and it’s after they take off in two very different directions that the events begin to stabilize and a very new focus starts to take root in the narrative.
The why, then, becomes the all-important concept in the film, it even hints at being able to explain how time travel was created in the first place. Why did Joe become a looper? Why are all the loops being closed? Who masterminded all this, and why? It’s a lot more personal than the trailers would have you believe. (Mothers, be good to your sons).