Looper’s Journey

1. When asked about a Hero’s Journey as applied to film, I’m stuck on Looper (directed by Rian Johnson, 2012). There are certainly films that follow the Journey much more closely and fulfill some of the stages in the right order, but what I find fascinating about Looper is that it doesn’t do that. It instead twists the thread around with the plot device of time travel.

The main character Joe, lives in a world filled with the same jobs over and over and though his buddy is excited by every club they go to and every drug they take, many shots are devoted to Joe reacting to his surroundings in a bored way. This is a twist on the mundane origin of the hero – it’s not mundane to his coworkers, but Joe is so jaded that that is how he perceives it.

His call to action is his older self being sent back in time – Young Joe’s job is to kill his older self. In this movie, his refusal of the call lasts a literal lifetime. He kills Old Joe and goes on to live a life caught in the same job that he viewed as mundane in the beginning. The movie follows him as he ages, marries, then watches his wife murdered. He then goes back in time as Old Joe and becomes his own call to action once more. This time, his call is a little more elaborate and aggressive and Young Joe refuses a few more times, but finally agrees to help Old Joe prevent their wife’s death.

I find it interesting that so much of the Hero’s Journey is based on rebirth, but Looper is more about continual re-death, where mobsters kill their older selves and then are killed by their younger selves in a perpetual loop. Old Joe is supernatural aid, which I find fascinating, because Young Joe’s aid is himself with more years of experience. But wait! the twist is that after Young and Old Joe cross the Threshold together, Old Joe turns into an obstacle and begins to work against Young Joe.

Young Joe meets his Goddess and Temptress in Sara, the mother of the man who will kill his future wife (though he doesn’t yet know that). He must then unite with her to fight his older self, his Father figure, mentor, and enemy. I’m not sure if Old Joe transitioned into being an enemy and was no longer a father, or if he became both at once. I don’t believe the latter option works well within the Campbell thread of the journey, but I feel like it is the case and works well in the world of Looper.

After Young Joe finds out that Sara’s child will become a murderer, he has the chance to leave, to turn himself in and return to his mundane mobster life. He refuses. Old Joe finally hunts them down and Young Joe never gets the chance to be rescued from without. Sara attempts to sacrifice herself for her son. Young Joe realizes that if he allows Old Joe to kill Sara, the loop will be complete and her son will become a murderer because of Old Joe’s attempts to prevent him from living to kill his wife. Young Joe in an act that shows both his mastery of two worlds and his freedom to live (or die) kills himself and breaks the loop. Old Joe disappears before he can kill Sara.

The device of time travel weaves some of the threads of the Hero’s Journey back on itself, but all but a few of the key moments are still there (if occasionally in the wrong order). I particularly like the extended call to action and the freedom to live being flipped into the freedom to die, which is well within the re-death theme that fills the movie. Sara’s son becomes the first rebirth, as he is reborn through Young Joe’s sacrifice as a non-murderer.

2. Cinema can meet all four human needs listed. The need for mystery and the need for a picture of the universe in which human beings belong seems to be fulfilled frequently by science fiction and fantasy movies. The mystery of space or otherworldly locations, as explored by humans, reinforces humans as belonging to their own part of the universe by comparison. The need for a picture of our society in which each person belongs and the need for a picture of our own psychology that helps with the transitions of a human life is probably most often fulfilled by comedies and tragedies in the style of dramas. As people transition to a new stage of life and are forced to search for their place in a society, drama happens.

I don’t see any reason why film can’t fulfill these needs, although I’m not going to argue that it does it better. Cinema has its downsides, as does all other media, but I strongly believe that nearly all art-forms that have the capacity to tell a story can fulfill the four human needs listed.