What if you could go back to the 1890s and kill Hitler long before he got rejected from art school? Or Stalin long before he went to the seminary or rocked that hairdo he had going on in his twenties? Or what about bin Laden in those years in between him being on team USA against the Soviets and him defecting to team anti-USA?
Looper is a rich, complex, and deeply rewarding action film about the nature of legitimate punishment. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays an assassin whose job involves shooting — at point blank range — a person hooded and bound on a tarpaulin. He disposes of the body and collects his paycheck.
His victims are sent to him from 30 years in the future. It’s extremely difficult to dispose of bodies in the future, so a mafia-like bad guy gets his thugs to send victims into the past where they can’t be traced…
Look, ignore all the time-travel stuff. The mechanics of it all confused me no end. The film is so enthralling that you’ll barely have time to think: wait… what? Indeed, you just tend to assume that the experts in the future world have thought about it all long and hard and have painstakingly come to the conclusion that this, for whatever reason, is the most sensible way to assassinate people.
The film centres around a coming of age moment for the assassins: the moment where the mafia-guys from the future send back the older versions of the assassin for execution. The film calls this anachronistic suicide ‘closing the loop’, and it comes with a huge cash payout and a cold apathy to the fact that the assassin now knows how they will die: bound and hooded on a tarpaulin in the past.
Things get exciting when JGL’s future self, Bruce Willis, appears before him on the tarpaulin unbound. By failing to kill his future self, JGL’s organisation tries to hunt both JGL and Willis down to correct the situation. JGL, on the other hand, is determined to correct the mistake himself, and sets down the path of tracking his future self.
It’s all gleefully confusing and it’s not until the credits roll that you start to think about some of the gaps. You can’t help but be seduced into the world of the undergraduate philosopher musing about temporal paradoxes. If JGL dies, will Willis die? But if JGL dies, how could Willis come from the future to set about the action of the film? Can Willis change the past?
The latter question is powerfully and touchingly explored through Willis’ memories. In JGL’s future, Willis has a wife whom he loves and who completely transformed his life, from the drug-addled assassin that JGL is to the contented and happy man that Willis was. As Willis interferes with the past, he begins to lose those memories of his wife, with new memories being formed by JGL and his interaction in the Willis-modified world.
It’s weird to say so, but Willis brings most of the sentimentality to the film. Most people think about what they’d say to their younger selves, but Willis gets to play out this fantasy when he and JGL cross paths in a diner to exchange some expository dialogue. Willis conveys shame, regret, dismay, and indignation is such subtly profound ways. I had never thought much of Willis as an actor until this film, and he’s worth the ticket price alone.
That’s not to undersell JGL. There’s a danger in these sorts of films to forget exactly who the main character is. Where films like Twilight and Harry Potter have been built around the idea of hollowing the protagonist into an everyman avatar of the reader, Looper does a superb job of reminding us that JGL is a bad guy. He is a man who, callously and unrepentantly, shoots people he does not know, who have no chance of defending themselves, in exchange for money. His motivation in the film is not a noble, righteous crusade: it’s a conditioned, non-reflective attempt to do his job, get paid, and go on holiday to France. JGL holds it together and makes it difficult to sympathise with him, while still providing the character development throughout the film to make the resolution plausible in its implausibility.
Willis, having been unleashed in the past, decides to go on a quest to prevent the future from happening the same way. A supervillain called The Rainmaker has taken over the future and is committing atrocities. This is the guy who’s behind the temporally-displaced execution system, and he’s also the guy who’s responsible for the future death of Willis’ wife. Thus, Willis decides to execute The Rainmaker in the past, long before he gets the opportunity to become the supervillain of the future. Unfortunately, Willis doesn’t know who The Rainmaker is: or, rather, he knows it’s one of three children.
Thus begins his quest to shoot all three.
JGL, knowing the identity of one of the children, camps out nearby and waits for Willis. This drives most of the film. Willis struggles to deal with the horrors he views as necessary; JGL develops a close attachment with the family of the third child. Willis, driven by noble principles, becomes an antagonist; JGL, driven by base desires, becomes the protagonist. It is a fascinating film and I highly recommend it.
Where The Matrix decided to bludgeon the viewer with whatever trumped up philosophical musing it could glean from Wikipedia (Putnam still cries salty, salty tears about that film), Looper invites the audience to think about the deeper questions about punishment.
When time is flowing in one direction, we usually think about punishment being a response to a crime (or punishable act). How we respond is an extremely contentious area of theory. Do we punish a criminal because they deserve to be punished? Do we punish them to stop other people from committing similar acts? Do we punish them to stop them from committing similar acts in the future? Do we punish them to rehabilitate the criminal back into the moral community? Do we punish them to give expression to our need for revenge and retribution? &c. &c. &c.
People tend to have very strong intuitions about the ‘point’ of punishment and will invariably think that their position is default rational. I sit down the desert end of the spectrum, yet get perplexed looks from my extremely liberal friends who see punishment as a whole great big exercise in rehabilitation.
It’s possible to divide responses on this question into two camps. On the one hand, you’ve got the deontological retributivists like me. I believe that we ought to strive towards being a just and civilised society, thus we have to punish people who do the wrong thing in order to ensure we maintain the standards of being a just and civilised society. We don’t punish people in an attempt to change the person in the justice system; we punish them because they have done something which requires punishment.
On the other hand, you’ve got the consequentialist pragmatists like nearly all of my friends. Punishment is about turning people into good people. We are punishing them to cause some great outcome where there’s less crime in the future.
As a side note, I sometimes struggle to see why people don’t question the assumptions under their positions. Most advocates for the death penalty (like me) are in the first group, but struggle to explain that position to people in the second group. Most advocates of decriminalising drug use sit in the latter camp (like Greg Barnes) and refuse to believe that anybody could think of punishment in terms other than trying to create some brave new world of less crime.
One of our greatest moral theorists, Immanuel Kant, argued that we couldn’t treat people as means, but had to treat them as ends in themselves. When we interact with others, we have to take into consideration their rationality and provide them the maximum ability to exercise that rationality. I maintain that the consequentialist view of punishment (advocated by Greg Barnes) is thoroughly immoral because that form of punishment is about treating the criminal as a means to an end: deterrence and rehabilitation.
Looper forces us to question whether our intuitions about justice are really on the money. If you’re serious about punishment being about reducing the amount of crime, then it becomes difficult to think that Willis is doing the wrong thing when he metes out punishment prior to the event. After all, he’s preventing some great evil from occurring. We could ask whether Willis is an appropriate authority or whatever for enacting the punishment, but that would just be side-stepping the issue.
Further, the consequentialist has problems with the other two, non-future-supervillian children. Is punishing those two children legitimate if it results in deterrence and rehabilitation? It even feels weird to use the word ‘punishing’ in that sentence.
The consequentialist could cheat here and invoke rule-consequentialism: the needs of the few don’t outweigh the needs of the many when it comes to the autonomy and prosperity of the individual; an individual human life is infinitely valuable; &c., &c. It’s a cheat because you’re no longer talking about deterrence and rehabilitation: you’re now talking the language of the deontologist. You have a duty not to punish innocent people because they don’t deserve to be punished. It is immoral to use people to meet some broader goal.
But Looper also presents a problem of the deontological retributivist. The Rainman deserves to be punished but only after he becomes The Rainman as a person deserving to be punished. Could we, as Willis, be the sort of person who takes a hands off approach to The Rainman, simply waiting for him to commit the crimes which justify punishment? And that’s the position I’m in: if I want to be morally excellent, I’d have to wait for the kid to grow up and commit the atrocities before I could justify punishing him for it. Which is plainly weird. I also can’t interfere in the child’s upbringing to avoid him becoming The Rainman — after all, that would be to treat the child as a means rather than an end in himself.
Making it all more complex is the fact that we have Willis and JGL reflect, in many ways, the situation of The Rainman. Without getting into the turgid philosophy of identity, we can see that Willis and JGL are simultaneously the same person and entirely different people. There is a thread which links them, but their approach to the world are entirely at odds. JGL is only interested in indulging his pleasures and going on holiday, but ends up forming attachments to the family he’s protecting. Willis is interested in saving his love and protecting the future from a monster, but ends up executing children. The Rainman of the future is a monster and, yet, here he is in the present a clever but sad little boy. If you punish the child, are you punishing the same person as the adult (the person who deserves to be punished)?
It’s an extremely clever film which doesn’t force us to take sides, but shows that both sides have to be nuanced and subtle if they’re able to grapple with ordinary (if not the extraordinary).
Epilogue: Consequentialists are people without imagination or sense. There. I said it.