Author’s note: Mild spoilers ensue.
“Call the doc.”
Jeff Daniels, as a crime boss named Abe, utters the only explicit reference to a health care professional in director Rian Johnson’s film Looper, in which medicine plays a tiny but indelibly disgusting role. For the central conceit, criminal organizations in the future send captives back in time where hitmen called “loopers” shoot and kill them. The loopers live in a time period where there is no time travel and therefore cannot travel forward in time. Periodically, an organization sends the looper’s future self, hooded and bound, back in time where the looper kills himself, recognizes the significance of the deed by seeing and collecting the gold (not the standard silver) ingots strapped to the victim’s back as payment, and acknowledges that they have 30 years left to live.
Such characters call for the doctor not when wounds need to be tended to. Instead, as films often do, doctors are depicted from a jaundiced perspective. Occasionally, a looper’s future self successfully communicates to his younger self that a form of suicide is about to be committed. More sensitive loopers, stricken with epiphany, sometimes let their future selves escape. Indeed, Paul Dano’s character Seth stands paralyzed as his older, perhaps wiser but definitely more desperate, self flees into littered streets. When he learns of the dereliction of duty and of young Seth’s whereabouts, Abe orders a medical consult.
Later, Seth’s future self climbs a wire fence at night, hoping to stow away on a train. First, an inscription appears on the skin of his volar forearm, telling him to rush to a decrepit building by a certain time. Panic spreads over his face. Then his nose vanishes, leaving two flat slits for his sinuses. Scrambling, he gets to a car and drives to the location. As he drives, his limbs begin to disappear. His clothes no longer fit, the sleeves of his shirt enwrap his forearms. Pawing the steering wheel, he nearly loses control of his car as his lower body can no longer reach the gas pedal. Arrived at his destination, he stumbles out of the car, his clothes now too baggy and long, and crawls to a battered, rusty doorway. The door opens, the shine of a pistol’s barrel stretches out from the inky shadows, a click followed by a bang ensues, and future Seth lies dead. The camera pans upward and through the doorway. In a deliberately indistinct view, a figure is seen leaning over a table, moving his hands over sheets covered with blood overlying an oblong mass that is about the length of a person. The camera then cuts to the next scene.
The lack of individuality of the doctor, signified by the obscuring of specific identifying details such as name, age, height, ethnicity, and even sex, perhaps indicates a broad statement about doctors and, even more likely, keeps the visuals ambiguous in order to imply and thereby accentuate the revulsion and ghastliness of Seth’s fate. Further, the ethical transgression promotes the pervading tension and conflict within the film. Doctors can be found apt to violate the patient-doctor relationship, but Johnson shows that if the Hippocratic Oath is to be violated — and Seth’s surgery surely did not go awry — doctors can do it well, with a clinically honed competence and proficiency. In a twisted way, Johnson accords the medical profession a degree of respect for how it conducts its work, if not the kind of work it undertakes.