September 1, 2011 / Mediation
According to reasonably reputable sources, this year’s MTV VMAs (the annual Video Music Awards, broadcast …
“I don’t wanna talk about time travel ‘cause if we start talking about it then we’re gonna be here all day talkin’ about it and makin’ diagrams with straws.” –Old Joe
Rian Johnson’s recent science fiction film Looper is not, first and foremost, a movie about time travel, as articulated clearly by older Joe (Bruce Willis) to his younger self (Joseph Gordon Levitt) in the diner scene. Most readings of the film thus far have generally critiqued the film on narrative grounds, criticizing its allegedly flat storyline and the paradoxical plot frustrations prevalent to any movie involving time travel. Engaging Looper merely at the level of its narrative content obstructs the possibility of a much more robust reading of the film and prohibits authentically engaging the subtle theological questions and ethical critiques undergirding the entirety of the movie. The film itself subverts this reading by asking this question on behalf of the viewer in the younger Joe’s query to his older self: “So do you know what’s gonna happen? You done all this already?” to which the older Joe responds, “I don’t wanna talk about time travel…”
At its fundamental core, Looper functions as a commentary on the nature of violence and the systemic character of evil by offering a redemptive subversion of such systems of violence through creative acts of nonviolence and self sacrifice. While it may seem redundant or obvious to suggest that Looper is a movie about violence and nonviolence, what is not readily apparent is the extent to which these concepts are addressed. The film is unquestioningly brutal in its portrayal of the willful, dehumanization and destruction of human bodies. But the visceral demonstrations of violence in the film point toward a deeper reality of human subjectivity in general: the distortion of selfhood through externalized acts of violence. Thus, time travel functions not as a genre gimmick but as an indicator of the cyclical nature of systemic violence, both in the extrinsic sense of active brutality toward the other and the intrinsic sense perpetuated by ego-centric conceptions of selfhood. The nature of violence is essentially characterized by the self’s willful inability to foster an openness to the other, remaining closed within itself, what Luther and Bonhoeffer after him referred to as the cor curvum in se, or “the heart turned in on itself.” Insofar as the self is defined by the concept of the cor curvum in se, selfhood can only be characterized by the willful domination of the other.
In the film “loopers” are defined by this axiomatic understanding: systems of violence are necessarily closed systems. As such, Joe’s identity as a looper is constituted by the closedness of the system in which he participates. A looper’s life ultimately culminates in a profound act of self-destruction, a deferred suicide wherein the looper is required to take the life of his or her older self sent back from the future, which is referred to in the film as “closing your loop.” Each character, with the possible exception of Sara (Emily Blunt), is driven by this distinctly human conception of selfhood: greed, lust, power, self-preservation and it is upon these forces that the systemic brutality and power structure of Looper is predicated. This is the central question posed by the main character, Joe, when he is confronted by the stark futility and self-destructive nature of the system in which he finds himself trapped. Abe (Jeff Daniels), in his conversation with Joe, claims to have prophetically envisioned the future Joe would have lived if Abe had not taken Joe in and given him a new identity as a looper. Abe, completely devoted to the preservation of his own power, is convinced of the inevitability of the system he has created and must likewise convince Joe of the necessity of violence as the essential element of his identity. As Abe explains to Joe: “…I could see. I could see it happenin’ on the TV. The bad version of your life, like a vision. I could see how you’d turn bad. So I changed it. I cleaned you up and put a gun in your hand.” Abe not only puts the instrument of violence into Joe’s hands, he fundamentally convinces Joe of a certain conception of his own humanity. Abe illustrates the way in which violence mandates a necessary dehumanization of the self: violence is always predicated upon the distortion of humanity.
The violence of the film should be understood instrumentally, as a utility of the violence inherent to the self trapped within an enclosed system. Just as the gun is an extension of the body with which to harm another body, the will to use it is an extension of the violence which is always already being done to the self. As the film clearly demonstrates, one act of violence only serves to further perpetuate more violence: violence begets violence. The only solutions that can be conceived by the characters in Looper are of retaliation and vengeance. The consequences of each act of violence inevitably return back to the aggressor and are again cyclically perpetuated in further acts of violence. Older Joe has become a specter of this violence, eternally returning to the originary site of the film’s violent cycle. The paradoxical relationship Joe has with himself, that is, his future self, illuminates the way in which acts of violence ceaselessly perpetuate themselves in an eternally returning loop, the specter of the future haunting the past and motivating more violence.
The film culminates with Joe’s reckoning with the systemic outworking of his acts of violence through his confrontation with his future self, wherein he must finally come to terms with the nature of violence. He identifies the system that Abe thrust him into, one in which a “Mom would die for her son, Husband would kill for his wife,” and he too decides to change it. The only way to truly undermine the cyclical system of violence is to shatter the enclosed nature of selfhood which motivates it. Closed systems stand in stark contrast to the reality inaugurated by Joe’s self-giving. Only by absorbing the violence into himself through a disruptive act of self-sacrifice can a system of openness be inaugurated in which the other is authentically conceived as truly other. Joe, in an epiphanal moment which recalls Abe’s previous vision of his life, envisions the potential reality consequent to the cycle of violence which he has created and acts in the only way which can disrupt that cycle and redeem the destructive trajectory of events for which he is responsible. Joe’s taking of his own life does not represent the overcoming of violence in that turning his gun upon himself is an act of violence: rather his absorbing the inevitable violence into his own person is what serves to undermine the closedness of the system. Openness is only possible in the wake of inaugurating a new system, a new possibility chiefly characterized by self-giving.
Such forms of self-giving must be rooted in the theological concept perichoresis, what the Cappadocian Fathers referred to as ‘the divine dance,’ the intra-trinitarian movement of love modeled to us in the incarnation of Jesus. God’s reception of sinful humanity into the divine communion, as it is represented in the incarnate sacrifice of Jesus, is the only possible model for overcoming violent systems. Miroslav Volf explains, “The crucified Messiah creates unity by giving his own self. Far from being the assertion of the one against the many, the cross is the self-giving of the one for the many. Unity here is not the result of ‘sacred violence’ which obliterates the particularity of ‘bodies,’ but a fruit in Christ’s self-sacrifice, which breaks down the enmity between them.” In the cross of Christ, we see the Messiah definitively break the system of violence by taking on the sins of the world, absorbing the final blow of injustice into himself. This non-violent confrontation with violence, this overcoming of violence must be read as a refusal to play into the hands of the enemy, to let the formation of the identity of the self fall outside of the reality of the resurrection. Volf writes, “The cross of Christ should teach us that the only alternative to violence is self-giving love, willingness to absorb violence in order to embrace the other in the knowledge that truth and justice have been, and will be, upheld by God.”
Joe’s decision suspends and ultimately ends the entire system, a system in which violence was the ultimate end and answer. His action, we are left to presume, changed the system, but such a concluding thought remains a presumption. The very fact that the film ends immediately after Joe’s act of nonviolence demonstrates the idea that the outcome of an act of non-violent resistance is always out of the hands of the moral agent. That is, moral agency is only responsible for responding to the events that befall him or her, but even the most creative resistance does not necessarily guarantee the overcoming of systemic violence. That is, the moral agent is not essentially responsible for altering the system or even necessarily capable of such a feat: he or she is however responsible for naming and responding to injustice.
The viewer, however, is led to believe in the affective nature of young Joe’s creative act. After young Joe falls to the ground, old Joe disappears, implying the evental disruption of the pre-existing system. What distinguishes Joe’s act from other forms of resistance represented in the film, what leads to its affective nature is the creativity by which it was imagined. Following the model of the incarnate Christ, Christians cannot avoid action, cannot avoid naming and confronting injustice for the sake preserving a clean conscience. Nonviolence is not synonymous with pacifism but is rather a generative force which actively confronts and resists evil and injustice. Such acts are only possible through a virtuous life and a carefully cultivated imagination. Stanley Hauerwas writes, “Nonviolence requires life-long training in being dispossessed of all that I think secures my significance and safety.” Such a radical call to overcome systems of violence necessarily challenges our preconceived notions of possibility. The inauguration of a new reality, a reality that ultimately rests on the resurrection of Jesus, refuses to be acclimated to stagnant forms of thought, and if we are to embody that reality, if we are to put death to death, we must awaken our dormant imaginations and learn again to think creatively.
“Love,” Hauerwas pens, “is the nonviolent apprehension of the other as other.” There are only two options in the wake of Christ’s resurrection: love or violence; life or death. If we are to follow Jesus, we must follow him into the grave, a tomb in which death itself is interred and resurrection is made possible: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Being in Christ is contingent upon our authentic participation in the kingdom, participation in a kingdom that refuses to operate in light of a closed system of coercion and violence.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Act and Being [Akt und Sein], ed. Wayne Whitson Floyd, trans. Martin H. Rumcheidt, DBW Vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 46.
 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exposition of Identity, Otherness,
and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 25.
 Volf, 100.
 Volf, 47.
 Volf, 292.
 Volf, 295.
 Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 148.
 Hauerwas, 91.
 1 Cor. 15:26
Brett David Potter
Robert Andrew Norman
Zachary Thomas Settle
Zachary Thomas Settle currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where he is a PhD student working in political theology in the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt. He is also the editor, alongside Taylor Worley, of a forthcoming volume on theology, phenomenology, and film: Dreams, Doubt and Dread: The Spiritual in Film.