Before I jump in to this movie, I want to remind my readers of a few things from my first post on theology and culture, namely that my reviews contain spoilers, and may often be of films with adult content. Looper is rated R for violence, language and nudity, and it is the ending in this movie that offers the most value to us for dialogue, so you have now been warned about both.
But seriously, if you haven’t seen Looper, go see it, and stop reading. This post WILL ruin the ending, and it’s really worth not knowing in advance.
While I haven’t gotten around to blogging about it yet, my favorite go-to movie for theological dialogue is Gran Torino. I particularly love how great that movie illustrates a Christus Victor understanding of the atonement. That is for another time, though.
Looper is also exceptionally value for understanding an aspect of the atonement, namely the way in which Christ breaks the cycle of violence and creates a better future that wasn’t possible before. I’ll run a recap to give structure, since this can be a confusing movie, but again, I can’t stress enough that you should stop reading and go watch the movie if you haven’t and can handle the R-rated material.
The movie takes place in two time periods, both of which are in the future. The primary time zone is 2044, where Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Joe, an assassin called a Looper. Loopers assassinate people who are sent back in time from about 2074 by the mafia. In 2074, it’s hard to kill people due to advanced tracking and enforcement. So the mafia sends their victims back to 2044 where they are killed and disposed of by Loopers, leaving no trail. But because they can’t have anyone squealing in the future, part of the agreement is that the Loopers themselves, if they are alive in 2074, are sent back to be killed by their younger selves. Bruce Willis plays the older Joe, sent to 2044 to be killed by his younger self, but he has an agenda of his own.
It turns out that in the future, a mysterious and powerful dictator has taken control and is responsible for mass killings and endless amounts of destruction. He is also vaguely responsible for the death of Joe’s wife. Joe’s mission then is to find the child version of this dictator, known only as the Rainmaker, and kill him in the past so this destructive future never comes to be.
This is where the moral ambiguity really catches up with us and why Bruce Willis’ casting was so brilliant. This is John McLane from Die Hard! We expect some genuine badassery from him, and we get lots of it in this movie. But… the plot forces Bruce Willis to kill a child in cold blood. And not only does he kill a random child, but his intel has only narrowed it to three. The film implies Older Joe killing a child who ends up not being the right one, and he breaks down after. While we see this glimpse of remorse and hesitation, he continues with his mission out of vengeance for his wife. The American audience has become almost numbed to seeing Bruce Willis kill, and even celebrates it, but this movie brilliantly plays that reaction against itself, lulling the audience in before making us question why we love it so much. I think this is exactly what Clint Eastwood does in Gran Torino, and what makes the ending of that movie so powerful.
Younger Joe simultaneously finds the young Rainmaker, not knowing it is him until a particularly bloody incident. He also has an opportunity to kill the child, but doesn’t do it. He is told by the child’s mother that maybe, if he’s brought up good, he can do good things. This is our first glimpse at the idea that maybe a different future is possible.
While some may throw a red-flag here for time-travel consistency, I think it does make sense. In the original instance, no Looper comes into contact with the young Rainmaker, and none of the formative events take place. I think that because of the Loopers’ interference, there are new possible futures for the Rainmaker. This sort of past-affecting-the-future is displayed throughout the film.
Older Joe believes that the only way to change that future is to kill the boy, but Younger Joe sees more possibilities. And there’s this beautiful quote at the end, which I wish I could quote word for word but can’t find it. Essentially, he sees how the violence of Bruce Willis shooting the boy’s mother will turn the child into a hateful violent murderer. He remarks at seeing a mother willing to stand between her son and a bullet, and at his future self being willing to kill to try to save his wife. But in this moment, Young Joe sees that this violence is a cycle. If Older Joe kills, it will just create the same future in a different way. Violence only begets more violence, or as Gandhi would say, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
So how can anyone break the cycle of blindness? Through self-sacrifice. Younger Joe turn the gun on himself, killing him and his future self, and stopping the violence. The boy returns home, and the future that we imagine, which we could never have imagined before, is that the boy has now witnessed his mother, who was willing to die for him, but is now there to love and raise him, and that a stranger died so that he could live. The boy has been given a moral example to strive toward, and has been given a future full of hope and possibility.
This is, in a profound way, the significance of the cross. Jesus, through self-sacrifice, breaks the cycle of violence and offers a new future. Jesus was killed in the most brutal empire to that date, Rome. The Romans dominated and took power through violence and massacre. In fact, this is how ANYONE came to power back then, and it’s a false truth we still accept today. It’s the myth of redemptive violence, that violence is necessary for the flourishing of life. Rome, and every Empire before it, came to power through violence and brute force. It was a non-stop cycle that felt like the only way.
This is why the cross looked like such a tragedy. The Jews were expecting a military coupe, an overthrow of Rome’s power and the establishment of Jewish nation. But Jesus did not came as a military leader; he willingly let himself die at the hands of his enemies. He refused to play into the cycle of violence, even when everyone on earth believed it was the only way to “win”. And not to quote a controversial book or anything… but Jesus showed that, ultimately, love wins, not violence.
Because of Joe’s sacrifice, a new future is possible for the little boy, a future full of hope, molded by love. The Christian belief about the death and resurrection of Jesus is that at that moment, a new kingdom was inaugurated. In the midst of the old kingdom, the kingdom of God came rushing in, not through violence but through sacrificial love. My undergraduate New Testament textbook has this helpful diagram for talking about these kingdoms:
What we see in this diagram is that the “age to come”, or what we believe happens in the future, is not ONLY in the future. It’s something that, on the cross, collided with our own age and beckons us to live in a new way. The cross created for us a new future of hope, but there’s more: that future is accessible here and now! The inauguration of the Kingdom of God means as much for the transformation of today as it does for the destiny of the world in the future.
We found our way a little deep into theology-land, but not for nothing. The reason that I love Looper is because its narrative and ethic of self-sacrifice over perpetuating violence is one (of many) ways the Christian Church talks about the atonement of the cross. Obviously, there is more to be said about the forgiveness of sins, the victory of Christ over evil, etc. But this film illustrates for us in a meaningful and exciting way the way that Christ took violence upon himself rather than inflicting it, and how that broke the cycle of violence in the establishment of kingdoms and created a new and better future, and an impossible present, that no-one saw coming.
May we always be in awe of a God who would rather die than kill, who would rather sacrifice than take by force, and whose kingdom is here and now and full of hope. And we continue to find glimpses of this in the culture around us and strive toward the same ethic of sacrifice over violence.