Decoding the Philosophical Core of ‘Looper’

It’s a classic ethical dilemma: would you kill baby Hitler?
By  · Published on July 4th, 2019

Psychologists and philosophers alike have long pondered an age-old question: what has more impact on child development, nature or nurture? This scholarly debate underscores a slightly more nonsensical question: would you go back in time and kill baby Hitler?

A ridiculous query, but one raised often nonetheless. Either you believe Hitler will always turn out to be Hitler no matter how he experiences life, or you believe the power of a loving and stable home life will make all the difference. It may not seem like it at first, but beneath the futuristic landscape and telekinetics, Rian Johnson’s 2012 sci-fi film Looper asks this question.

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe (decked out in full facial prosthetics to give him a truly uncanny resemblance to Bruce Willis), Looper is set in the near future: 2044. At that time, time travel has not yet been invented. But by 2074, it will be. And will immediately be outlawed. However, criminals will be criminals, and when internal tracking devices make victim disposal impossible in 2074, high power mobsters send the people they need dead back in time, 30 years in the past, to be killed by an assassin called a looper.

Working as a looper, Joe’s job is to wait at a certain location at a certain time and kill whoever appears in front of him, head bagged and anonymous. He makes a good living and has some colleagues one might call friends, though he sure doesn’t. He indulges in drug use and paying strippers for conversation, but unlike the majority of his peers, he saves the majority of his earned silver. Stockpiled in a safe hidden beneath his floorboards, Joe patiently saves for retirement. He seems a bit paranoid and wants more from his life than to simply kill whom he’s told to when he’s told to.

A looper’s retirement isn’t your typical retirement process. Called “closing the loop,” a looper’s final task is to kill himself. Though it first appears to be a regular job, loopers are paid in gold, rather than the usual silver, to kill their future selves, with the high-value payload strapped to their back. Once you close your loop, you’re free to do what you wish with your life. Granted it’s only 30 more years until you’re violently sent back in time to be killed by a younger version of yourself, but still. With the final payout being a healthy sum on top of his savings, Joe has high hopes for retirement.

When tasked with closing his loop, Joe’s a strange mix of excited and solemn. In order to live out a better life, he knows what he has to do. So he assassinates his future self, collects his savings and heads to Shanghai for the next 30 years. Joe lives out his fantasies and finds love, and somewhere along the way, he becomes Old Joe (Willis).

Despite knowing this happy life has come to an end in order for it to even happen, Old Joe is distraught when his time comes. As soldiers storm his home, he puts up a fight and his wife is tragically caught in the crosshairs. Finally, after a life of solitude and paying sex workers for simple companionship, Old Joe had found love. And when it’s taken from him, he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get revenge, even if that means killing a few children along the way.

See, the organization that utilizes loopers is run by one man: the Rainmaker. Old Joe hears horror stories about the Rainmaker in his present and knows the only chance to stop him is to go back to the day he closed his loop and take care of it 30 years ago, killing the Rainmaker when he was only a young boy. Suddenly, we see the exact moment Joe closed his loop again. Though this time, rather than quickly pulling the trigger on his Blunderbuss, Joe hesitates. Instead of seeing the typical bagged head, he sees Old Joe staring directly at him for just a moment before he’s overpowered and knocked unconscious.

After another brief meetup, Joe learns why Old Joe has returned and ends up with a piece of his map when the two go their separate ways again. Upon arrival to the farm marked on the map, Joe meets Sara (Emily Blunt) and her young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon). After Sara informs him that the cryptic code scrawled across the top of the map is Cid’s birthday and hospital code, Joe knows that Old Joe will kill all the children born in that hospital on that day in order to ensure the death of the future Rainmaker. Rather than hunt down the other children himself, Joe stays at the farm to protect Sara and Cid and wait for the return of Old Joe.

When Old Joe inevitably returns to Sara’s farm after killing two innocent children, it becomes clear that Cid really is the Rainmaker. As a small percentage of the population are, Cid is “TK,” or telekinetic. However, unlike others who can simply make small objects hover a few inches above their hands, Cid is beyond powerful. He is young, temperamental, and fiercely protective of his mother, and small mood changes trigger massive outbursts causing at least two deaths. His identity confirmed, the final showdown between the pair of Joes and Sara begins and showcases their differences in beliefs in terms of nature versus nurture.

First is Old Joe: the fatalist hardened by love lost — and not just lost but violently ripped from his arms. No matter how Sara or Joe beg and plead with him, killing young Cid is the only option he sees. There is nothing anyone can say to convince him that Cid won’t end up the Rainmaker. Old Joe lived a happy life and believes that the rise of the Rainmaker is the sole reason for the dark turn it took. He believes that Cid’s nature is inherently evil.

Sara, of course, wholeheartedly believes that she can raise Cid to be better. Yes, she fears his TK outbursts but as a mother, she wants (and needs) to believe she can raise him to be better. She has seen firsthand the damage Cid can bring, but her love overpowers her fear. Just as strongly as Old Joe believes he is evil, she knows he isn’t.

And then there’s Joe. Caught in the crosshairs between people who have far more to fight for than he does, his beliefs are purely selfish at first; he wants to destroy Old Joe but only because he stands in the way of the future he feels he’s owed. Sara pleads her case, crying that she can teach him to use his powers for good, and Joe responds callously, “he doesn’t.” But as Sara stands strong between Old Joe’s gun and her child, Joe suddenly sees the truth. 

He sees the moment that changes everything. He sees the moment Sara dies in front of her son and the damage it would have on him. He sees the moment that changes Cid from a curious little boy into the monster Old Joe once knew.

In the end, Joe knows nurture reigns supreme. He sees that Old Joe’s experiences are what changed him into the revenge-obsessed child killer he saw before him; an evil that did not exist in Joe naturally. Though he never felt it himself, he saw how powerful love was to the version of himself lucky enough to experience it.

And as he stands in the field watching Sara put her life on the line for Cid, he knows that her love is truly the only way to prevent him from becoming the Rainmaker. So he presses his gun against his chest, pulls the trigger and changes the moment.

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Film student and serial binge watcher. Daughter of Mother Suspiriorum.