Looper has a time-travel premise, but it wasn’t at all what I expected. It was better.
I was perhaps expecting something like Edge of Tomorrow, if only because I read a reference to this movie when reading an article about that one a year and a half ago. But no, there is hardly any Groundhog-Day style repetition, just two simultaneous versions of one guy: a younger one (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and an older one (played by Bruce Willis).
As I was watching it, I started to think maybe Looper would be like Paycheck, a sci-fi movie in which a hunted, mind-wiped character has to figure out some mysterious clues he gave himself, or Predestination, a time-travel movie in which there are some really strange relationships between the characters. But although it’s just as flawed as any time-travel movie, Looper isn’t really that complicated.
Looper has some dystopian futuristic stuff and some magical sci-fi stuff (mostly done with practical effects and not overbearing CGI), but the heart of the movie is not sci-fi, it’s drama. The themes include justice, redemption—and motherhood, of all things! The resolution of the conflict doesn’t hit you hard because it’s a clever gimmick, it hits you hard because it’s a deeply felt moral choice.
Keep reading for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
My beat sheet for Looper
Joe is alone in a field and shoots a hooded guy.
Time travel is used by criminal organizations to send doomed guys back in time to appointments with assassins called “loopers” to be shot and disposed of. Eventually, the loopers have to kill themselves. The job pays well, but Joe is basically a lonely druggie with one friend, who he sacrifices to preserve the luxurious future he has planned for himself in France.
Joe tries to shoot his older self, according to orders, but his older self escapes.
At the diner, Old Joe talks to Young Joe and gives him a map so he can help kill the The Rainmaker before he grows up and starts killing people, most importantly, Old Joe’s beloved Chinese wife. (Joe doesn’t retire to France after all. It seems, these days, that every Hollywood movie has to have Chinese bits in it so that people in China will buy tickets.)
Break Into Two
Arrogant Young Joe doesn’t want to help, he just wants Old Joe to leave him alone. However, he has to run from the enforcers, so he goes to the farm marked on the map.
B Story / Promise of the Premise
Young Joe meets Sara and her son Cid on the farm. Young Joe, recovering from withdrawal, tells Sara why he’s at the farm: Cid might be The Rainmaker. Cid’s a pretty genius kid, though he has a nasty temper; he makes a pair of electronic frogs to help Joe and Sara keep watch for enforcers. If Old Joe kills the other two boys and doesn’t disappear, he will show up looking for Cid.
Young Joe escapes an enforcer with Cid’s help and Sara sleeps with him.
Bad Guys Close In
The incompetent enforcer in the city has found Old Joe, and the scary enforcer who was snooping around the farm is back.
All is Lost
When he and Sara are threatened by the enforcer, Cid uses his freakishly strong telekinetic power to levitate everything and kill him.
Dark Night of the Soul
Clearly Cid is the boy who will become The Rainmaker. Joe, carrying his gun, chases him into the cane field and finds him with blood smeared all over his face and shirt. Sara chases Joe, begging him to spare her son.
Break Into Three
Joe sees that Cid is not a monster, just a frightened boy, and comforts him. He tells Sara to take Cid in her truck and leave the farm.
Confrontation between Young Joe, Old Joe, Sara, and Cid in a cane field. Old Joe tries to pay off Young Joe with a truck full of money, but it’s too late for that. Young Joe has already chosen to fight back. Like Sara, he believes that Cid’s path has not yet been decided, that he can be good if he is raised by a loving mother. In the end, Young Joe realizes that Cid would become The Rainmaker if Old Joe were to kill Sara. So he does something that prevents that from happening: he shoots himself, which makes Old Joe disappear, and leaves Sara and Cid not just safe but also in possession of a truck full of money.
Mother and child hugging in the cane field.