Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Diagramming Timelines with Straws (Time Travel in ‘Looper’)

with 15 comments

Removing my professor’s tam and applying my fanboy’s prosthetic forehead for just a moment, I haven’t seen anyone clearly state how time travel and the iteration of timelines works in Looper. Here it is, as best that I can tell:

Loop 0: The original timeline, in which time travel is invented in the future, at which point someone or something is sent back into the past for the first time.

Loop 1: The new timeline caused by the appearance of the new object or individual.

Loop x-3: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is recruited as a looper and murders a bunch of people, eventually leaving the business and growing up to become Bruce Willis. Thirty years in the future, he is captured by gangsters, bound, gagged, hooded, and sent back in time to be assassinated by his younger self.

Loop x-2: This is the timeline we see in flashbacks to in the movie, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt murders a bound-and-gagged version of older self immediately after Bruce Willis arrives back in time. Afterwards, he moves to China, gets married, and is eventually captured by gangsters to be sent back in time and murdered by his younger self. However, he overpowers them on the platform, and enters the time machine unbound, ungagged, and unhooded. He then overpowers his younger self and escapes. Some unknown series of events culminates in the standoff in the cornfield, in which the young Rainmaker is shot in the mouth before seeing his mother murdered before his eyes.

Loop x-1: This is the confusing part. This is the timeline that the Bruce Willis we see for most or all of the movie actually comes from. We know this because he has memories of the Rainmaker from the future that include rumors that the Rainmaker has a synthetic jaw and saw his mother murdered before his eyes as a child. These events can only have happened in a version of the loop after the unbound Bruce Willis has escaped Joseph Gordon-Levitt. So there has to be at least one intervening loop between the flashback loop (designated x-2) and this one (designated x-1), despite the somewhat confusing way the movie presents this.

Loop x:This is the main timeline we see in the movie.

Thank you for your time, and I’m looking forward to taking your questions.

15 Responses

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  1. As an aside, I should say that Cid and Joe are the same person on the level of allegory or metaphor, but they are not the same individual within the terms of the plot, despite the appeal this theory evidently has to a number of people on the Internet.

    On the other hand, Jeff Daniels and The Incompetent Gangster are the same individual, even if the theatrical cut of the film never pays this off in any way I noticed. This theory will be vindicated by history deleted scenes.


    October 20, 2012 at 8:04 am

  2. There’s no need for x-1. I thought the point of JGL’s epiphany is that this timeline would turn out pretty much the same as your x-2 — two different paths would converge on the Rainmaker’s bitterness, etc.

    Adam Kotsko

    October 20, 2012 at 8:09 am

    • It’s definitely not necessary for the narrative, but a single line of dialogue proves it must have happened!

      I think the point of the movie such as it is is what you said. I just want to nerd out on the timeliness because Bruce Willis said it wasn’t allowed.


      October 20, 2012 at 8:17 am

  3. A big piece of evidence in my favor: the Rainmaker already exists in x-2 (he’s the one closing all the loops). The status quo ante-Bruce Willis in x is what produces the “original” Rainmaker (he saw the death of the woman he believed to be his mother). JGL’s intervention sets up a new situation where he accepts the blonde woman as his real mother and experiences real human love or whatever, at which point Bruce Willis’s action ironically would unravel the solution JGL had already achieved. So again, no x-1 is necessary.

    Adam Kotsko

    October 20, 2012 at 8:14 am

    • Right, there’s a Rainmaker either way. (He has two mothers and saw them both die.) But he’s only shot in the jaw if Bruce escapes.

      The specific timeline from which Bruce Willis comes is the one that would have proceeded from the standoff in the cornfield, not the one where he gets murdered immediately under the hood. Unless you’re suggesting that the script has an error, which, sir, we cannot accept.


      October 20, 2012 at 8:21 am

      • I believe the script has an error. If your theory was what they intended, they should’ve had an additional timeline where JGL is killed off as punishment for letting his future self escape. And that would of course be logically prior to when the first escaped future self reports that the Rainmaker has an artificial jaw.

        I would interpret the artificial jaw line as an attempt to reinforce the message of the film in a way that renders to the time travel incoherent.

        Adam Kotsko

        October 20, 2012 at 8:27 am

  4. But in my hypothetical x-1, Bruce Willis never would’ve been affected by “his” Rainmaker. Hence the film is incoherent — UNLESS the “original” Rainmaker injured his jaw in some other way and his mouth-related injury by way of BW is a kind of “same difference” gesture. Because it seems like if the gunshot had broken the kid’s jaw, even the most stone-cold kid is going to be in excruciating pain, right?

    Final hypothesis, then: the synthetic jaw actually belongs to your x-2, and in the obviated x+1 timeline where Bruce Willis succeeds, he would’ve wound up with some kind of mouth-related injury, just as he was aggrieved by the death of a different mother — but the result would be the same.

    Pretty sure your x-1 is down for the count now! VICTORY IS MINE!

    Adam Kotsko

    October 20, 2012 at 8:33 am

    • Well, it’s not just the wound itself, but presumably the lack of medical attention that causes the need for the new jaw (the orphaned kid is off on the train in my x-1 timeline with his wound getting gross and infected, after all, not going home and getting tended — and there’s a delibate shot of him clutching his bloody mouth on the train, if you remember it).

      I would interpret the artificial jaw line as an attempt to reinforce the message of the film in a way that renders to the time travel incoherent.

      I’m pretty sure this is what happened. I think a properly nerdy script doctor would have removed the references to the synthetic jaw entirely just to clean this up and remove the incoherence. Still, I think the plot of the film “requires” it in the sense that JGL’s revelation (to me) was not that fear-leads-to-anger-leads-to-hate-leads-to-the-dark-side; that’s our revelation. Personally I thought his revelation was “Oh, I literally caused the thing I was trying to stop, just like every other time travel movie. I know how to fix this.”

      The recognition that some version of the Rainmaker would have arisen anyway, without JGL’s intervention, and that the only hope for a good Rainmaker requires the combo of his sacrifice and the proof of Cid’s mother’s love, arises only in our sober parking-lot reflection. The character, narrating from his spooky posthumous position, doesn’t seem to take particular note of it himself.


      October 20, 2012 at 8:41 am

      • I guess Albert Brooks does say that JGL is too fascinated by old movies? I’m not sure we’re meant to see genre self-referentiality, though, as though JGL realizes he’s in a sci-fi movie. In part because I’m just not seeing how it could possibly work that Bruce Willis causes his own version of the Rainmaker (because then JGL, and hence he, would have been killed).

        Adam Kotsko

        October 20, 2012 at 11:00 am

      • In the timeline we see, this seems perfectly explicable — Bruce Willis has already murdered all the people who would be interested in coming after him. I’ll concede, though, that this *doesn’t* appear to be the events of the timeline from which Bruce himself has originated, or, at least, nothing in the movie before this point suggests that this happened to him in his own past.

        The only answer, of course, is postulating another set of hypothetical but plot-necessary Loops to make the logic work out. I’ll get to work…


        October 20, 2012 at 11:09 am

      • i.e., he could have literally said, “And then I realized it was like every time-travel movie ever, and I was causing what I meant to prevent…”

        Adam Kotsko

        October 20, 2012 at 11:22 am

      • That *is* what happens though, minus the cutesy self-referential stuff I added just to be charming. He says, “And then I saw it,” and we see the events that would happen if he hadn’t committed suicide, which fit the only actual details we have about the Rainmaker: dead mother, bad jaw. It’s pretty clear to me that his realization is the short-term one about the nature of the loop, not the higher-order one about bitterness and sadness.


        October 20, 2012 at 11:25 am

  5. I’m not sure we’re meant to see genre self-referentiality,

    Well, don’t let my cuteness get in the way of the point I was trying to make. The suggestion it seems to me is that JGL realizes that it’s his own future attack on Cid that turns him into the Rainmaker, and decides to obliterate the loop by committing suicide. The tags from earlier in the movie (synthetic jaw especially, but also saw his mother murdered) are supposed to make this ring for us, that this is how it “always” happened. But it can only happen in a timeline in which Bruce escapes, not in which he is murdered immediately.

    I guess the hand-wavey “I can remember the most likely future” stuff is the other out here — he only remembers the synthetic jaw detail after he’s already escaped — but I guess I mostly think it’s script incoherence.


    October 20, 2012 at 11:17 am

    • This is going to shock you, but I still prefer my own explanation where JGL realizes it’s going to turn out the same as before due to Bruce’s botched intervention and that the trajectory before Bruce kills mom is what actually would prevent him from becoming the Rainmaker. But discussing the issue with The Girlfriend, it turns out that my explanation was not something she intuitively got from the movie, so who knows…

      Adam Kotsko

      October 20, 2012 at 11:24 am

  6. […] If you haven’t gotten enough Looper after Adam and I explained the whole thing, there’s a director’s commentary you can take with you into the […]

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