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The Art of the Antagonist: Looper

In any good story, the protagonist must face and overcome a number of challenges: his fellow man, society, even the darkness within. But the conflict always boils down to one big threat, one major obstacle standing between the hero and his goal. So you have to ask yourself: Who–or what–is the antagonist?

In Looper, writer/director Rian Johnson pushes the classic “Man Against Himself” theme to its logical extreme. Plenty of gun-slinging gangsters arrive to spice up the action, but they’re little more than complications; at its core, this taut sci-fi thriller is about one soul split between two bodies, separated by thirty years of growth. Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the titular Looper–an assassin hired to murder men from the future–spends his days doing drugs, brushing up on his French, and romancing strippers in a futile attempt to meaningfully connect with another human being. Old Joe (Bruce Willis), on the other hand, settled down, sobered up, found the happiness that eluded him throughout his reckless youth–and he’s willing to resort to drastic measures to preserve this idyllic existence.

The question remains: Who is the antagonist? Old Joe, the remorseful child killer fighting for a future that may never come to pass? Or Young Joe, who stubbornly clings to his foolish dream of a peaceful, luxurious retirement?

Why not both? After all, temporal paradoxes aside, they’re essentially the same person, blemishes and all.

The pivotal scene, I think, occurs when the two Joes meet in an out-of-the-way diner. Old Joe berates his younger self for his substance-abuse, his short-sightedness–warns him that his poor decisions will eventually kill the one woman who cares, really cares, about him (them?). Young Joe, with a shrug and a smirk, smugly offers to exploit the obvious (*ahem*) loophole: “Show me her picture. If I ever see her, I’ll walk away. I’ll marry someone else.”

It’s a tidy little solution (Joe can’t cause her death if he never hooks up with her)… which Old Joe immediately shoots down. Why? Because he cannot see beyond his own selfish desires–for love and companionship, in this particular instance. It is the same flaw that turned Young Joe into a junkie and a killer in the first place–the same flaw that he must learn to overcome in order to finally “break the loop” and change the future for the better.

[Originally written September 30, 2012.]

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