This is part 2, continued from part 1.
We stopped after the movie jumped ahead in time for 30 years. What happens then is astounding and simple. The movie just moves on and follows old Joe as he travels back 30 years to his past, where we then follow him as he follows young Joe doing all the things we saw already. So while structurally the movie shows us the same events from a different perspective, narratively it just keeps on moving along, without any actual jumps anymore. It does leave out some crucial information, though, but we don’t know that yet. What we feel is sympathy for old Joe as he tries to save his newfound happiness with his wife (Xu Qing). It’s a relatable motivation up till this point and it’s important to see that the movie takes us there, so we later have to ask ourselves how far we are willing to go along with this character. We get some fun moments where old Joe doesn’t understand young Joe’s actions, which is a clever way of showing how we distance ourselves from who we were the more we grow older.
The movie plays with us then, by showing us the same marks on Joe’s arm that we have seen before on poor old Seth, but now they mean something else. It’s a really silly trick if you think about it (because it’s so implausible), but it works and it leads us to the big scene we expect from this movie, as old and young Joe meet in a diner. What happens next, though, defies our expectations because we imagine a cool team-up of the same character in different iterations. Instead, Bruce Willis says the best line in a time travel movie (“I don’t want to talk about time travel shit.”) because while the movie has some fun with rejecting the idea of being a traditional time travel movie, it has even more fun with using time travel to construct complex scenarios the viewer has to think through. All of this has some metafictional touch, especially that line because in a way it is directed towards us. What’s so interesting about that scene is that both Joes don’t like each other. Young Joe doesn’t want to see an older, used, wise-ass version of himself and old Joe can’t stand the attitude of his former self. So, instead of a buddy cop plot in which they get along despite their differences, they, well, do not get along. They try to kill each other and eventually plot against each other’s plots. Again, the psychological implications about growing older and rejecting your past are immense. If old Joe just had accepted his past, embraced it, this could have done differently. But he is so eager to change it that he ultimately fails over himself. Young Joe has an advantage because he sees the mistakes he will continue to make in his future, he sees how his character has to change, to do better in the present. There’s also the problem of memories that are not reliable (“cloudy” he says, not coincidentally) and hard to keep up, establishing the divide between past, present and future even more.
The movie then switches again and introduces two completely new characters after almost an hour, Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son Cid (Pierce Gagnon, incredibly cute and scary at the same time). Sara is an interesting female character. She is tough but also vulnerable, she has real, authentic issues with her son that can’t be solved easily and she doesn’t really need a man. Okay, she gives in a little after Joe lands on her farm and they have to team up, but it never becomes a typical romance. Again, the movie plays with our expectations as old Joe struggles to save the memory of his wife after young Joe meets Sara and we expect the picture of his wife change into Sara's, but then it just doesn't.
Old Joe goes down a dark path by starting to kill children that could potentially become the Rainmaker, the big villain from the future. Killing children makes it hard for the viewer to keep up her or his sympathy, even for Bruce Willis. We suddenly have one of our main character developing in a way we don’t like and once he kills the first boy, it’s also clear that there is no way back. We finally realize that this future self of Joe comes from the Joe we have met before, the one who cares only about himself and his future, the character who doesn’t undergo the typical character change we need to feel sympathy for him. What an interesting thought experiment: What if the unsympathetic character does not become good in the end but stays the same? And then the movie of course includes both versions, one with and one without change. It goes the traditional and untraditional way at the same time.
Back on the farm, a parent-child-drama of epic proportions unfolds. Cid feels rejected because he had been taken away from his mother in the past and resents her for it, rejecting her as a mother figure. Joe, young Joe, sympathizes with him because he sees himself as a little boy in him, who also has been rejected by his parents. The conflict first comes to a close when Cid provokes his mother during a game, which leads to her shouting at him (after being extremely strict), after which he gets loud and she… hides inside a safe? This reaction gives us some hints about what’s to come, but let’s take a look at that again. The child feels rejected because it doesn’t understand what happened. The mother feels bad about it, but takes it out on her child, thereby increasing his frustration. His anger is so big and her conscience so full of guilt that she runs away from him, instead of dealing with his feelings. In those general terms, this is a very true psychological dilemma and not an unrealistic one. The scene afterwards, as they make up, is heart-breaking in its emotional truth. Later, young Joe tells Cid about his childhood, revealing that he was abandoned and sold by his mother, a trauma so strong it made him become a killer-for-hire. By telling that story he comes full circle, because while he before sold his friend, just like he was sold himself, he now has changed and doesn’t care about his future anymore. He rediscovered his ability to feel empathy (and maybe love), not because of a romance with Sara (there is sex and some conversations, but not more), but because of facing his past self in the form of Cid. This is what achieves his change, the change the old Joe is unable to go through. Embracing the past instead of ignoring it and pretending it didn’t happen. This idea is perfectly captured by Joe helping Cid out of the darkness of the bunker they were hiding in. He pulls his trauma out into the light and faces it.
Of course, we soon realize that Cid is indeed the future rainmaker, in a scene of revelation that to me equaled all the amazement I last felt when watching The Matrix in 1999. There are no fancy effects, but it is so powerful and successful that my heart skipped a beat. This works so well because Johnson again plays with our expectations. We worry about the kid falling down the stairs, we see his mother trying to save him, but then we’re caught as off guard as Joe when we realize what's really going on. Afterwards, Joe gets angry and wants to kill Cid, but again he gives him comfort instead, trying to heal the anger instead of repeating it.
Meanwhile, old Joe lives out his anger by killing everyone at the Looper office, Kid Blue tries to resolve his daddy issues with anger too (but is killed by a cloud) and Cid also has trouble restraining his anger but is saved by the only thing that could save him (and maybe anyone) - motherly love. The ending, in which young Joe sacrifices himself to save Cid, works because the themes are implemented so well. Joe commits suicide because he sees a future that looks like his past, a future full of anger, a vicious circle, a loop that will never end unless someone breaks out of it.
Then I saw it. I saw a mom who would die for her son. A man who would kill for his wife. A boy, angry and alone, laid out in front of him the bad path. I saw it. And the path was a circle. Round and round. So I changed it.
What a great poetic twist. And when Sara carries Cid home, treats his wounds, puts him to bed and an ocean of clouds makes him fall asleep in the last shots, it’s the violent, egocentric, cold past and future that vanishes as the movie fades to an optimistic whiteout, the final cloud with an uncertain but hopeful future.
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