On Looper and Seven Psychopaths

Looper and Seven Psychopaths are in some ways very similar movies. Both are “about” non-violence. Both are “high concept,” original stories with lots of interesting characters. Both riff on popular genres and mix genres during their narratives. Both are structured around an exciting, fragmented first act, a languid, talky second act in a sparsely populated area, and a more exciting, “twist” filled climax and conclusion. Both display a real appreciation for cinema and are rife with direct and indirect references to other, lauded films.

However, one (Seven Psychopaths) I liked and the other (Looper) I did not. Most of my distaste for Looper I attribute to its abrupt, mid-movie shift in focus and genre from its interesting (to me) time-travel centric story to a more supernaturally focused story. It becomes a horror movie, and the science-fiction elements don’t matter very much until the very, very end of the movie.

In an interview writer/director Rian Johnson did with The Q&A’s Jeff Goldsmith, Johnson divulges that while he’s had the basic script for a long time, the second half of Looper didn’t really work, so he rewrote and changed substantial portions of it later in the story’s life. I can feel the break in story when I’m watching the movie.

If Looper were a book, it would be as if a printing error combined the content of two different books into one, and with the turning of the page you switch stories entirely. Then, imagine that in an attempt to reconcile this, the author went back and inserted pages earlier in the story to establish the interloping content that appears later on. As you read the book then, you’d get these moments of weirdness early one that would eventually overwhelm the story for a while before you came to the end where the author tries to harmonize the two discordant narratives. Either story might be compelling on its own, but jammed together, they’d just feel strange.

That’s Looper for me.

Seven Psychopaths, on the other hand, feels consistent throughout, even when the narrative goes on a literal camping trip to Joshua Tree National Park in its second half. The story was always about Martin writing a screenplay for a movie called “Seven Psychopaths,” so when the central characters go on a writing retreat, it works. Even if various parts of the earlier narrative had proven, in the end, to be nothing more than dream sequences, the movie still would have worked, because the movie is about telling stories and imagining better endings to those stories. Seven Psychopaths tells an off-kilter story, sure, but at least it is off-kilter consistently.

Going deeper though, I think I dislike Looper because of its general attitude. It’s a snarky movie, proud of its self-perceived intelligence (“We’re not going to sit here and talk about time-travel.”) and disrespectful of its audience, spelling out its meaning as if its audience is made up of children (“And then I could see it all, how…”), all the while distancing itself from its own arrogance via false modesty disguised as sarcastic, self-depreciating humor (all the jokes about the young people’s like of “old” things, “Go to China. Trust me.”). It’s message is “non-violence,” but it defines degrees of violence and baptizes some as acceptable (Brice Willis killing children – bad; Joseph Gordon-Levitt killing himself – good.). It’s “non-violent” resolution is “an eye for an eye” at its worst, positing that we ought to put our own eyes out to inspire our enemies to do the same (He sacrifices himself, yes, but only in order to sacrifice his rival.). Once again, the whole world ends up blind.

Seven Psychopaths, on the other hand, is a much more genuine movie. It, too, is very intelligent, but it’s also humble, believing in the better nature of its audience (It does nothing to call to attention the ways it flips violent images during the film.) and admitting its own culpability in the propagation of violence in the world (It’s a violent movie about the problem of violent movies.). To the last frame, it maintains its stance on non-violence and confesses that for want of moment by moment grace, it, too, is prone to violence (What else is Tom Waits’ phone call during the credits other than an admission that a commitment to non-violence will be constantly challenged?). It’s solution is an actual solution – refusing to react to violence with anything other than love (Colin Farrell tries to take Woody Harrelson to the hospital even though Woody would just as likely kill him if he could. Colin Farrell is endlessly patient with his psychopathic friend who consistently puts his life in danger.).

In a previous post, I wrote abut how my goal is to point to the beauty that I see in the world. One walks out of Looper thinking, “Wow. That was such a clever movie! I’s smart too because I understand it!” One walks out of Seven Psychopaths thinking, “Wow. Non-violence is radical and beautiful. How can I have more of it in my life?”

Snark is a critical posture that is permeating our society. I’m tired of it. The point of criticism of any kind ought never to be to point the reader toward the writer or to point the reader toward him or herself. The point ought to be to point the reader toward the greater world. Snark highlights the intelligence of the writer and appeals to the intelligence of the reader. The result ends up being a feeling of superiority over both the thing being criticized and anyone who doesn’t “get it.”

Furthermore, I’m also weary of snark because I know I am prone to it. For much of my life, my identity was wrapped up in being smarter than everyone else. I liked to demonstrate my intelligence and have people congratulate me for it. I feel threatened when other people are asserting their intelligence. I’ve been in situations where the whole conversation happening was really about how smart everyone in the room was. I played along and then left feeling dirty. I don’t want to be that way anymore, so I am repulsed by snarky attitudes.

I know I should give snarky people and snarky movies (like Looper) more grace. I should remain silent rather than lambast them (snarkily) for their snarkiness. I don’t have to recommend snark-laden things to other people, but I don’t have to fight against it either, and most often this is the course I take. I only broke my silence on Looper because the almost simultaneous release of Seven Psychopaths presented me with a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the difference between genuine, radical cultural commentary and self-satisfied, toothless commentary on the same issue.