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Rian Johnson's Sci-Fi Film 'Looper': A Great Case Study of the MacGuffin

You see Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the left here? He seems pretty confused. Now, it’s arguable that he’s contemplating the nuances of time travel. Or maybe pondering how he can elude male pattern baldness. But you know what? I think he’s thinking about something else entirely — his MacGuffin in Looper, written and directed by Rian Johnson, who also helmed and wrote Brick and The Brothers Bloom. Hit the jump for a great video by Isaac Niemand that looks at the MacGuffin in general, and a take on Looper‘s MacGuffin by boingboing’s Jamie Frevele that provides a great case study. Note the bottom portion of this post is SPOILER-ridden if you haven’t seen Looper yet!

Isaac Niemand’s McGuffin by Hitchcock:

Can I just say I love motion graphics? Fantastic job, Isaac.

Wikipedia describes the MacGuffin succinctly:

In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist (and sometimes the antagonist) is willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to pursue, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so desirable.

I’m an avid reader of the blog, and I was excited to see something so relevant to me as a filmmaker in Jamie Frevele’s wonderful take on the MacGuffin. She took note that in Looper, the MacGuffin was the telekenisis abilities (TK) humans have evolved:

TK is barely ever mentioned after the first time it’s brought up early on, so for a while, we don’t actually know if the Rainmaker has TK abilities, or if TK is even relevant — the very definition of a MacGuffin. Sometimes MacGuffins end up being a huge deal, sometimes they’re completely forgotten, existing only to throw us off. Personally, I like this, especially when it’s done cleverly.

Check Jamie’s post for the full breakdown on Looper.

Regarding her take on Looper and the TK MacGuffin — I couldn’t agree more. As a filmmaker and screenwriter, I find it difficult not to trace out the plot of films sometimes. I find myself humming “alright, here comes the third act” or “there’s the loaded gun.” But I love films that can still pull the wool over my eyes. It inspires me, and makes me want to continue creating.

I wasn’t so blindsided by Looper’s use and mention of TK — I mean c’mon, the only purpose for something so powerful is a parlor trick? — but I did love the focus of the film being so much more on the time traveling, and less on the supernatural TK. As an audience member, I was using another part of the brain (the part where you try to reason out the time travel, versus the part where you sit back and enjoy a good supervillan). And, like when witnessing any good sleight of hand, I was grinning ear to ear by the end.

Working from this case study, I plan to incorporate more traditional MacGuffin’s in my own work. When using the device, I tend to be literal, and I need to work in more subtle callbacks that pack a punch like Looper‘s.

What are some of your favorite MacGuffins?

While we’re on the subject, if you have seen Looper, consider going back once more and listen to in-theater commentary during the film — and let us know what you think.



We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

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  • The briefcase in “Pulp Fiction” is a great MacGuffin (and yes, I know he took it from “Kiss Me Deadly”). I still think “Rosebud” is possibly the greatest MacGuffin in film history. No other object’s revelation has that kind of dramatic punch.

  • For Sure..this thing is more interesting than the movie Looper itself.

    Probably most overated film of the year.
    Masqueraded as edgey time travel sci-fi. when in actuality was
    nothing more than a Bruce Willis action retread circa 2012…and not 1988.

    • Agreed. I was severely disappointed by Looper. I don’t even think it was a good, or proper use of a McGuffin- but rather copping out of telling the more intriguing parts of the story

  • john jeffreys on 11.19.12 @ 3:43PM

    Also a great case study for mediocre fucking films. Looper was yawn inducing

    • Yes…but the movie in a sense served it’s purpose. Which it seemed
      was to keep Rian Johnson’s name out there..add to his filmography..
      and to connect his name to 2 big name actors: both past and present.
      He stil has a very viable career going at this point in time it seems.

  • Neill Jones on 11.19.12 @ 5:24PM

    Don’t, Don’t, Don’t . . . Don’t believe the hype! The metal box in Ronin, the least cleverly disguised Macguffin of all time. Great car chases though.

    • Travis Jones on 11.19.12 @ 5:29PM

      I was watching Ronin the other day! Great stuff. Great Macguffin.

      Check out “Seven Days in May”.

  • Well I for one enjoyed Looper. I guess no one else felt that way? I’m not saying it’s a flawless movie but jeez guys… Go make something, put it out there, and see how you feel when someone calls it a “mediocre fucking movie.” Odds are the person saying that has never made anything, mediocre or otherwise. Say something constructive or add something to the conversation, otherwise you just come across as embittered and jealous. And that’s not a good look for anyone interested in creativity and self-expression.

    • Agreed. There might be some slight flaws in Looper but it was something fresh and original. It tried to be something different. There’s a lot of armchair directors in this world.

    • john jeffreys on 11.19.12 @ 8:42PM

      the ending was so cliche. everything about it was so vanilla and hollywood. sci fi films don’t take risks anymore.

      • John Jeffreys: ray of sunshine. Always something positive to say.

        • john jeffreys on 11.19.12 @ 10:11PM

          the point of the internet is to hate things anonymously

          • Neill Jones on 11.20.12 @ 6:48AM

            I get what you say about being constructive but everyone is entitled to their opinion, and for the price we now pay for the cinema we have a right to demand excellence. Saying only filmmakers have the right to criticise film is just nonsense, but saying something is “fucking shit” is not criticism.

          • No, John, it’s not. Not here. Go to imdb or AICN if that’s what you’re looking for.

            I really enjoyed Looper. Cool film. Love that Rian Johnson recorded a commentary for Looper that you could download and listen to as you watched the movie. He’s a really accessible filmmaker who’s very open with his fan base. Gotta respect that.

    • “I like to act in films, I like to shoot ‘em, I like to direct ‘em, I like to be around ‘em. I like the feel of it and it’s something I respect. It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s a crappy film or a good film. ANYONE WHO CAN MAKE A FILM, I ALREADY LOVE. But I feel sorry if they don’t put any thought in it because then they missed the boat.” -John Cassavetes

    • Maybe I was brief before, but I still think (especially considering how impressed I was with his earlier films) that Johnson let a lot of people down with LOOPER. The time travel element is not expanded upon nearly enough, and his future world was not at all believable to me. It was funny when MacGruber drives a miata, but in Levitt’s case completely unbelievable. The reason I don’t find the TK to be a good use of the MacGuffin is that he side steps the real story in lieu of a not-so-surprise ending that comes after we are forced to watch our protagonist spend most of the second act simply hanging out on a farm. I admire Rian Johnson’s filmmaking eye and his story telling capabilities- especially the fact that he was attempting to do something vaguely different than many Hollywood films (in particular the ending). That said, if you want to find great examples of a MacGuffin look to Hitchcock and stop there. My personal favorite is “Strangers on a Train.” He uses the lighter as a way to progress the plot, but it holds no significance otherwise, except for the tennis rackets criss-crossed on the front to visually represent the Dichotomy of Bruno and Guy. In the case of LOOPER the so-called MacGuffin is basically the entire story.

    • I think it’s nearly perfect. The only change I’d make is to end the film exactly when (SPOILERS) JGL points the boomstick around on himself. That little bit after when they explain whether or not the kid would become the rainmaker is superfluous.

      That’s merely it though – anybody disappointed with the film likely came in with expectations of a story that’s much more grand. It’s a simple story in scale and a really efficient La Jetee-inspired time travel film.

    • Thanks Ryan. In case it wasn’t obvious by making the film a post topic, I really liked Looper. But not just from an audience perspective, also a storyteller perspective. It wasn’t conventional, and though timetravel has been done before in many different ways, there were aspects that provided a fresh voice. It took risks. I’m assuming I’m speaking to filmmakers here, and as filmmakers you guys have to see at least *some* of those positive attributes in the story, right? I think I’m kind of echoing your sentiments below, Will.

  • i’m going to say the big lebowski used macguffins nicely. all the things that moved the story along, missing wife, soiled rug, stolen ransom money, the next round in the bowling league, etc, didn’t matter except to get the dude out of his apartment. thumbs up.

    as for the macguffin in looper, i don’t think it was a macguffin. i think it was the shotgun on the mantle…and i think they should have kept it hidden till later on. i’m not going to go on a rant here, but just think of how shitty it would have been if ‘moon’ had a shot of cloned cats drinking a bowl of milk in the beginning.

  • *Spoilers for LOOPER and OCEAN’S 11*

    I loved LOOPER, one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had in a cinema this year.

    But surely The Rainmaker was the MacGuffin, not TK. The Rainmaker was the the vaguely defined person/object whose possession/discovery/destruction is driving the narrative.

    Hitchcock used to describe them as the jewels in a heist film or the microfilm in a spy movie.

    If you were to compare LOOPER to OCEAN’S ELEVEN, TK is more like the replica of the casino vault, whereas the MacGuffiin is the cash in the vault. The possession of the cash drives the narrative – Danny Ocean and his crew trying to steal it, Terry Bennedict is trying to keep it safe. The replica of the vault is an element that is introduced in an innocuous manner, but becomes crucial to the climax, like TK.

    TK is more of a Chekov’s Gun than a MacGuffin.

    • I can see that point. Especially since the definition also encompasses “a potential threat”. And I like your comparison to the vault in Ocean’s Eleven. However, I think TK is still the MacGuffin in a sense that it’s the plot device that drives the narrative, and the one that starts rather obscured, and ends up being huge. At any rate, well worth discussing.

  • TK is not a MacGuffin. It doesn’t follow any of the Wikipedia definition. A MacGuffin is the Maltese Falcon, or Rosebud- it’s what the characters want and drives the story. What it is exactly is inconsequential to the film. The could have been looking for the Maltese Pidgeon or looking for the meaning of “Radio Flyer”, those films would not be any different.

    Nobody in Looper particularly wanted TK… It was a parlor trick. But TK was very consequential to the story. If the Rainmaker was just really good at counting cards, the movie would be different.

    Don’t think anything in Looper classifies as a McGuffin. The characters all have separate and conflicting motives. Old Joe wants to kill the Rainmaker, young Joe wants to kill Old Joe. The Rainmmaker is his own character separate from those two. Like Jeremy Dylan said, it was a Chekhov Gun (new terminology for me ;) ) although I totally missed it – played BioShock too many times to think TK out of the ordinary.

    Btw, I count Looper as my favorite cinema experience this year so far.

    • Neill Jones on 11.20.12 @ 6:50AM

      …and Wikipedia is never wrong.

      • Wikipedia was brought up in the article, that’s why I mentioned it. And in this case, it’s right.

    • Thanks for your comment, John, made me think. I think it has to do with which character’s perspective you’re taking. You mention a few motives there, but in the article from, the motive mentioned immediately before the quote from Jamie is Bruce Willis’. And that begs the question – which character wants TK? Does JGL or the mom want or care about TK? No. But Bruce Willis sure is interested in it, who is arguably an antagonist (even though we, the audience, sympathize for him). As does the anonymous Rainmaker (and I’m referring only to the man in the future, not the child). Also, I’m very into BioShock btw, and am thrilled to see it come to the silver screen.

      • Just because the character is interested in something doesn’t make that thing a MacGuffin. In Star Wars the Death Star is what the Rebel Alliance wants to destroy, but its not a MacGuffin.

        At the end though, it’s sort of silly arguing over these terms as they don’t really mean anything.

        • Yeah I agree. In the end I’m less into pontificating definition if it doesn’t serve a purpose of furthering understanding. Regardless, good discussing this with you!

    • Ben Howling on 11.20.12 @ 6:02PM

      TK isn’t a classic definition of a MacGuffin, but it relies on a similar principle… revealed as somewhat of a triviality at the start, then neglected for the for a large chunk of the film, but consequently is an integral element of the story. Nobody pursues it, so to speak. Emily Blunt’s motivation is to protect the future Rainmaker…

      I understand the comparison, but I think this is an example of people trying to dissect something successful to make it fit into a box and a formula to try to understand how it works, when it’s not really appropriate.

      For me, I find Bruce Willis’ wife a more interesting plot device… She’s something he is driven to protect, which he has no hope of actually ever attaining again himself – he can only hope his young self does. He can’t time travel back into the future. Same can also be said for JGL’s motivation to kill himself – for the sake of preserving a life he knows will end in the future.

      • I agree with Bruce’s wife. I loved JGL’s final lines, very fitting to the story. I have to admit though, the end did get me on a time-travel-mind-fuck level. I’ve heard there is a specific theory on time travel that this film actually adheres to, but I’d rather just leave myself in wonder. Kind of the Back to the Future effect hahaha.

  • paul herrin on 11.22.12 @ 7:29PM

    well, i finally watched this one…

    i liked the thoughtfulness, motifs, questions it tried to grapple, and the fact it wasn’t a twilight movie
    but it’s not a landmark film in any regard, it brought no brilliance to the sci-fi/fantasy genre or the ongoing time-travel/possible futures/distopia dialogue

    to me, it was a confused, oedipal drama propped on the plot points of tele-kenesis and totally unexplained time-travel hidden in an over-emotional action thriller

    i know a lot of people really liked it. i didn’t.

    A for effort. i’ll be really excited to see this director’s future (not futuristic) work.

  • We might say that there are two McGuffins at play in Looper: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s object of desire is to live, and I guess the audience can relate to that as a universal non-specific desire; Bruce Willis’s desire is for a particular life, the life with his wife. And there’s a curious moment when the universal intersects the specific, when Gordon-Levitt’s love interest introduces a new possible specific which threatens to replace Bruce Willis’s desire.
    The movie ends by throwing everything open to possibility — will the rainmaker grow up well-adjusted (against all the odds, given what we’ve seen)? This is a particular kind of possibility, a dialectical synthesis of Gordon-Levitt’s universal desire to live (transferred to the boy) and Bruce Willis’s belief in the power of a woman’s love to turn things around (transferred to the boy). I think the comforting disappointment of the movie rests on this sacrifice of a moment of promise (anything could happen) for a return to mom (all we blokes need is a woman’s love and we’ll behave well). Gordon-Levitt’s desire for life is a definitive McGuffin because in the end he realises that what he (and Bruce Willis) really wants is not life itself but a well-behaved society which makes a life desirable. The result is that we have both an old fashioned, feel-good ending synthesised with a modern, hero-never-wins ending.

  • McGuffin by Hitchcock —- Beautifully Done !!