Why they don’t zap them into the middle of the ocean is not really explained, but as Bruce Willis tells JGL (an acronym now, my friends tell me) in the diner scene (heavy on Heat overtones) – we’ll be here all day if we start going into the mechanics of how it all works. There will be diagrams! he threatens. Let’s just leave it alone and attend to violent matters at hand, why don’t we?
And the advice is well worth taking, because this is a science-fiction film for only as long as it takes to set up the central metaphor of “looping” – the past impacting on the present and future. For a lot of the time, Rian Johnson is back in noir territory, and he has a curious and problematic way of defining this space.
The future is your typical crumbling metropolitan dystopia. If you overlap it with the one portrayed in Children of Men, it would be difficult to spot the seams. As Emily Blunt suggests, we have arrived here because we are in a motherless world. The men in the city all look lost because they haven’t had Emily Blunt equivalents to stroke their hair when they were growing up. Tellingly, the film has only three significant female characters: a cynical whore in the city, a loving wife in the country, and Ms Blunt, whose character arc spans both environments.
All this is noir to the very bone. Men need women to love and civilize them, otherwise they become rapacious beasts. Noir heroes worship a feminine deity which fixes their moral compass – the goddess is everywhere in chains, and must be protected as a knight protects his lady (parallels, sometimes explicit, with courtly love abound.)* It’s all up to the acetic outsider fighting the swelling tides of corruption and being swallowed up. And he can be fooled: the femme fatale escapes victimhood by exploiting her sexual allure to recruit champions that will defend her interests.
Looper’s femme fatale isn’t patronised or vilified, she is proud and independent enough NOT to take Joe Junior’s money and run. Even the silent loving wife has some spunk, giving Joe Senior the finger the first time she sees him. But they both fall into their prescribed roles pretty quickly, and Blunt’s character simply moves between the two options available. Joe Junior recognises that the traditional, family-orientated female role is proper and necessary if the world is to be saved, and the film is right behind him on this. The whore that sells her hair-stroking services is offering a balm that doesn’t cure the wound. She’s not interested in family, having alternative projects in mind, and so the city continues to rot.
It's all noir’s fault. This is what you get when you adhere to the conventions of the genre. But conventions are there to be played with, no? And we’re running out of excuses when it comes to lending a bit of edge to fundamentally unchanging gender roles. Why not make some more radical changes that widen the avenues women can take in noir? Why are none of the Loopers women? Why shouldn’t the superhero/villain be a girl? Will it really undermine the central (and politically innocuous) message that criminality is partly a product of your upbringing?
*What I love about Sin City is that it makes all these assumptions in noir so flipping obvious (cf. the wry references to Lancelot and Galahad). The arch tone of the books and film goes some way towards undermining the creepy sexual politics the stories revolve around.