Saturday, February 28, 2015
The reason people go back is so that they can be killed. Not that they are committing suicide-- they are getting the time travel kiss-off off instead of the old-fashioned-cement-overshoes-goodbye you might get from a twentieth century mobster. You see, as Joe (played by Joseph Gordon Leavitt) tells us, forensics is too sophisticated in 2074, so organized crime sends guys back in time to get whacked, which is the only sure way to disappear them.
When I think of hit men, I think of amoral and scary guys who can kill you eight ways from Sunday without even breaking a sweat—guys like Charles Bronson in THE MECHANIC. It’s both a vocation and avocation for these guys, who might not have grown up wanting to kill for a living, but found somewhere along the way that it was the only thing they were good at. The hired killer, the mercenary, the hit man, the assassin—these are the ultimate noir characters, who live in a world so debased that there is nothing they can do that would make any moral difference. They are not knights, not hard-boiled tough guys meting out rough justice in a rough world, but more like ronin, samurai without a master, killers who kill for nothing but personal gain, for whom everything, even the taking of human life, is just business.
Joe is amoral, certainly, but he doesn’t seem to me to have been “called” to killing. He’s certainly not an artist, or even a competent craftsman. All he really does is wait for guys to fall hog-tied from the sky and then blow them away with a shotgun called a blunderbuss: As he says : “You can’t hit anything further than fifteen feet, and within fifteen feet, you can’t miss.”
Joe gets a shitload of gold or silver bars for each hit, strapped to the back of the victim. He is saving up for some kind of life in the future, although it seems his future life will be as lonely and drug addicted as his present one. In the Kansas City of 2044, most of the city is a third world slum. A small percentage of the population (including Joe) lives a Club Med/Studio 54 kind of existence while the “vagrants” starve. There seems to be no middle class, with the rich and poor both being completely idle—the difference between them being the rich get to eat.
The movie starts to get really interesting when Old Joe is sent back from the future to be killed by Young Joe. For a little while, my mind got bent around the possibilities—if you killed your future self, would your present self die? (apparently not, although if your present self is killed your future one dies, and a new, alternative time line is created). Bruce Willis, as Old Joe, manages to elude Young Joe, who is dead set on killing his older self. He has to, or the entire criminal organization he works for will hunt him down and kill him. I loved the conceit, and thought about how often we mortgage off the future for a shinier, better present—athletes with steroids, Faust by selling his soul to the devil, young drug dealers and gang bangers selling off the future to live large now, all of which is not a new phenomenon, the phrase “live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse“ going back to at least the thirties, I think.
The two Joes meet in a diner, and the old version of Joe tells his former self (who sees the future holds no hair for him) that “The time travel shit doesn’t matter. We could sit around here all day with charts and graphs and it still wouldn’t make any sense.” It didn’t matter to me, either. The idea of your old self meeting your young self fascinates. What would I tell my twenty-two year old self if I could? Certainly, I would say lose the mullet. And avoid that boxing match where you tear the rotator cuff, as the shoulder is going to give you a lot of trouble later on. And certainly I would say stop drinking so much, and stay away from the wrong kind of women, and pay more attention to the right kind. And most of all, I would say stop being such a self absorbed, self pitying, navel-gazing, melancholy and morose fool.
Which is basically what Old Joe tells Young Joe. It’s a great scene. Of course, all this wisdom is lost on the impetuous youth. Wisdom is no match for impulse, the rash and the mercurial stronger than the seasoned and more measured (although maturity is just as capable of violence).
And from there we are off. The action scenes are great, but those are not what kept me in the movie. What did was the fact that there are two timelines at stake here, and in one, Old Joe loses his girlfriend in the future, and in the other, Young Joe loses his in the present. And there is the life of some young kids on the line, all three of them needing killing as an unknown one of them will become a criminal mastermind (somewhere around puberty, I would guess). Or will he? Do we have the right to kill people just because of what they might do? Especially since this differing “time lines” business seems to offer some version of free will?
But it is Young Joe’s movement back to the community of man, however tainted that community is, that really got me. You would think Johnson wouldn’t have bothered with something like that, what with the cool gimmick, the shtick, the conceit, the device, that he has come up with, but he has Joe learn to care for someone besides himself. Young Joe learns to love his girlfriend and her kid, and won’t let Old Joe kill either of them, which Classic Joe feels he must do to alter the terrible future (which contains the mastermind and the death of his girl). Both Joes are acting out of love, even though a complete lack of belief in the power of love is practically a job requirement for both of them.
Is there a third timeline where everything and everyone can be saved? Do people really change? The Future Joe does seem to have become a somewhat different man (although he still can rack up quite a body count). The best scenes in the movie are where Young Joe confronts old, and where Young Joe confronts Cid, his girlfriend’s (played by Emily Blunt) child. Cid is obviously emblematic of the younger Joe, before he was embittered by the loss of his mother, and all the useless death and pointless dystopian butchery and drugging and whoring and general dissipation and debauchery. Can a man choose love in a world where it has not only gone out of style, but seems not only a stupid but a suicidal choice? And will it make any difference in a world that doesn’t seem to care, a world that seems willfully opposed to any happy endings, that seems to insist that even if the two men act out of love, one of the girlfriends must meet a horrible death, and all three kids, including Cid? (Who may, on one timeline, embittered by the loss of his Mom, become the dreaded Rainman, the criminal mastermind with special telekinetic powers who decides to close everyone’s “loops” by having all the future killers go back in time to be slaughtered by their present ones, thereby closing their “loops”?)
No spoilers here. Let’s just say that people, and movies, can surprise you.
© 2015 Mike Welch