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Fangrrls on Film: Looper, a sci-fi western about toxic masculinity

Contributed by
May 18, 2018

Film criticism is a very dude-heavy industry. According to a 2016 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, men account for 73% of the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, resulting in men often shaping the narrative of what makes a "good" film or a "bad" film—what's worth seeing and what's not. And even the most well-meaning, wokest of men wouldn't necessarily catch the microaggressions or tropes that tend to define whole genres.

So, as our answer to years of male critics driving and basically shaping the movie industry with their opinions, Fangrrls on Film re-reviews films from a fangrrl perspective.

With the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, thinkpieces poured forth evaluating the gender politics of Rian Johnson's franchise-changing entry, commenting upon its depictions of mansplaining and women in power. But gender politics is nothing new to Johnson's work. Looking back at Looper, it's clear Poe Dameron was not the first hotheaded hero the writer/director used to make a point about the dangers of reckless machismo. On its surface, this 2012 time-travel adventure is about a hitman tasked with hunting down his future self. But under its sci-fi trappings, Looper proves a provocative western that employs a tale of impulsive gunslingers as a means of criticizing toxic masculinity.

In 2074, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a smirking gunslinger making his way in a different form of Wild West. Looper is set in a dystopian Kansas City full of violent young men who are woefully shortsighted about the future, blithely murdering its residents and themselves for a fat stash of silver and gold. These specialized hitmen are called "loopers." And when they're not killing out in the cane fields, they're partying in brothels, or obsessing over symbols of masculinity, be it their rides or their guns. Joe's friend Seth (Paul Dano) worries his janky hover-cycle will hurt his chances with women, while rival Kid Blue (Noah Segan) giddily compares his gat to Joe's blunderbuss. "A gat has range, accuracy," he declares in a none-too-subtle dick-measuring contest. (It's not the size that matters — it's the range and accuracy!)

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These macho contests seem to bore Joe, maybe because he always wins with his flashy convertible and superior firepower. Instead, he's content to save his silver and play at romance with a sweet-faced sex worker named Suzy, dreaming about a way out of this "small potatoes" life in a squalid city. But once his future self crashes into his world and shatters his plans, Joe is forced into an unexpected quest.

Joe races to a farm outside the city, where Old Joe (Bruce Willis) is headed to kill the kid who might become the Rainmaker, a future mob boss who has Old Joe's wife murdered 30 years from now. For self-preservation, Joe guards the home of single-mother Sara and her 10-year-old son Cid. Here, he enacts a classic Western trope. He is a gun-for-hire, living on the fringe of society, yet risking his life to preserve a key element of society — in this case, a family. It's a baroque theme of the genre, where a violent man looks back on his life, the blood on his hands, the red in his ledger, and seeks redemption by using his killer skills to save a life or two. But what does all this have to do with toxic masculinity? Let's get into it.

Looper's Kansas City is a place where walking too close to someone's ride can get a blunderbuss pulled on you, and snatching someone's bag can get you shot through the back. Guns can turn any interaction into a violent one, any slight into a deadly transgression. Men rush to whip out their guns, thinking not of the future, only of what they want now. Impulsive desire defines this city and the men who run it.

"You're so self-absorbed, so stupid," Old Joe chastises his younger self when they come face-to-face.  Yet, he cannot see that his quest is also one of selfishness. He doesn't want to kill the loop-closing, vagrant-slaying Rainmaker to save the world. Old Joe is only concerned with saving his wife (Qing Xu). Young Joe demands to be shown her picture, promising he'll walk away as soon as he sees her. "If you give her up," he argues, "She'll be safe." But it's not enough to save her. Old Joe wants to have her back. Such possessiveness is tied to masculinity by Joe himself. 

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Later, when he and Cid hide in an underground escape tunnel, Joe recounts the tragedy of his childhood, where his "junkie" mother sold him to a gang. He escaped but often thought of those bad men who he blamed for his mother's addiction and his misfortune. He fantasized about killing them and saving his mom. Then mob boss Abe — the closest thing the movie offers to a father figure for our hurt hero — "gave me something that was mine," meaning a gun and a job as a looper. "There’s just men figuring out what they’d do to keep what’s theirs, what they got," Joe tells Cid, "That’s the only kind of man there is." Joe believes being a man means claiming ownership and defending your possessions with brute force. It's how that hard city raised him. But this violent path is not the only one Looper presents.

Early on, motherhood is established as a means of salvation or damnation. When Seth threatens a homeless man for getting too close to his bike, the man bellows back, "Your mother didn't raise you right!" Later, it’s a song sung by his mother that spurs Seth to the disaster of letting his loop run. Conversely, it's Sara's mothering that gets Joe through drug withdrawals (with the help of a sippy cup of water). And she hopes it will be her nurturing that will save Cid from the reckless path she'd seen others take during her days as a Kansas City party girl. 

"I've seen so many men in the city who have that look in their eyes," she confesses to Joe in an intimate moment, "Like they're just lost. So whether he loves me back or not, as long as I'm there to raise him, he's going to be taken care of. He's going to be safe. He's never going to get lost." After it's revealed that Cid's incredible telekinetic abilities include being able to tear a man into bursts of blood, Sara pleads to a horrified Joe, "He gets scared and explodes…if he did good with it though? If he grew up with me raising him? If he grew up good?"

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By good, Sara really means loved. Aside from possession, the thirst for love is a deep motivation for the men of Looper. Every woman in the movie is a love interest and a mother. Joe pines for Sara and Suzy, who are both single-moms, while Old Joe's actions in his past create a new future where he and his wife share a smile as a baby cries in the background. Hit with this new memory, he weeps, wanting so desperately to preserve this future where his wife's ambition to have a baby is finally fulfilled. Through the quest of both Joes, motherhood is presented as something worth saving. It's sacred and unsullied, even by the grime of Kansas City or the hard-partying past of its female characters. And it's presented as something that saves. It's the care of the unnamed wife and Sara that rescues Old Joe and young from their drug addictions and teaches them to care about something greater than themselves. Eventually, Joe begins to realize this kind of love could change the future of the Rainmaker too.

In the final showdown, Old Joe is barreling toward Sara and Cid, his gun at the ready. When he clips the kid's face, a great force blasts the gun out of his hand, then lifts him and Sara aloft, trapped and powerless as Cid rages beneath them. It's a moment where Cid could rip this man and his mom to shreds as he did the Gat Man who scared him before. But faced with possible death, Sara gently, lovingly coaches her son to calm down. His furious face cracks into tears as he calls out, "Mom," and just like that Sara and Old Joe are dropped safely to the ground. But the battle is not over.

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As he reaches the scene, Joe finally looks beyond himself and sees the potential future that lies ahead. Old Joe kills Sara in trying to get to the escaping Cid. Witnessing the death of his mother, Cid grows up lost, leaning into impulsiveness, selfishness, and violence like the men before him, just as Joe did. In his final voiceover, Joe speaks of a cycle of violence that begets only more violence: "Then I saw it: 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. And I saw it. And the path was a circle. Round and round."  It's the same bad path Joe faced. And with this revelation, he says, "So I changed it."

The range of Joe's gun will not reach Old Joe in time to save Sara. So, he turns it on himself, firing into his chest, erasing the existence of his future self from the field. It is an act of violence, one fitting of a Western, a man of the gun will die by the gun. But more importantly, it is an act of self-sacrifice that not only saves Sara's life, and the life the unknown wife, but also saves Cid's future. Joe rejected toxic masculinity's selfishness and possessiveness. It's enough that Sara will live, even if it means he doesn't get to have her. In this way, Joe changes the future by being the first positive male role model the film has presented, one who thought beyond himself and did what's right over what's right for him. Yet there's a clue earlier on that suggests this is, in fact, a happy ending of sorts for our unconventional cowboy.

Before he falls for Sara, Joe was hung up on Suzy (Piper Perabo). In one telling scene, Joe confesses he can't remember his mother's face anymore. He then snatches Suzy's hand away from his belt-buckle, opting out of sex to indulge in a romantic fantasy, not unlike the one he later shares with Cid. He tells Suzy he wants to give her money so she can get out of the brothel and "raise (her) kid right." Unspoken is that he expects to be there too — a hero, not a heel; a father, not a fiend. Those too-short days on the farm, Joe got to be a father figure to a lost, angry kid. He got to be the good example he sought in his own childhood. He got to be loved by a mother and a son. He got the family he hungered for. And he got to be the hero. He didn't get to keep it, but cowboys rarely do.