An incredibly spoiler-filled take on Looper's MacGuffin (SPOILERS)

In case you already forgot the third word of the headline, this post contains major spoilers for the movie Looper, which opened this past weekend. Overall, I thought it was a very fun action movie with an interesting premise, so if you were planning on seeing it, I'd definitely recommend that you do! But this is where my spoiler-free discussion ends, because there was one aspect of the movie that is not mentioned in the previews that I found really, really thought-provoking that will completely spoil the movie for you. So, if you haven't seen it and want to, and don't want to hear about the ending, then read no further. In the meantime, for those who don't care and/or have seen it, come with me after the jump, and let's talk about that thing in the movie they barely talk about, and then it's a huge factor in the whole outcome of everything -- the MacGuffin.

So, from this point on -- HUGE SPOILERS. Okay? Okay.

Looper takes place in 2044 (30 years before time travel is invented, so, set your clocks), and in this universe, humans have developed a mutation that gives them telekinetic abilities; it's referred to as being "TK." (As in, "Oh, you're TK? Great. Get me the remote so I don't have to move.") Apparently, when it was discovered, everyone thought they'd be getting superheroes, but instead, we get corny bar tricks. ("What's that behind your ear? A floating quarter?")

People who are TK are regarded on roughly the same level as highly-skilled card shufflers.

Unless their TK powers are really powerful. While the Looper universe never saw TK translate into heroic superhuman powers, in 2074, someone with superhuman TK abilities had started committing lots of telekinetic cold-blooded murder -- the Rainmaker, a powerful and dangerous kingpin. One person that ends up killed at the hands of the Rainmaker is the beloved wife of Joe, the main character whom we see as both a young (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and older (Bruce Willis) man. The older version of Joe realizes that if he can travel back in time to kill the Rainmaker before he becomes the Rainmaker, he will save his wife.

Considering all the time travel paradoxes involved with that (to say nothing of pretty big unaddressed plot holes), let's stay on an Action Movie Need to Know basis: the Rainmaker was responsible for killing Bruce Willis' wife, therefore the Rainmaker must die.

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.

The future Rainmaker is a six-year-old boy named Cid (Pierce Gagnon, a freakishly amazing child actor). As far as we know, he's just an innocent kid. His mother, Sarah (Emily Blunt), had Cid when she was 22, left him with her sister so she could continue partying, and then her sister was killed, so she came back. We find out Cid is TK when he has a meltdown over his times tables. Not just a "Grab me a glass of wine" meltdown -- an "I have to go lock myself in a safe because my kid is telekinetically shaking the entire house as if it were weathering a Category 5 hurricane" meltdown. And later, we watch Cid blow up a man's heart. And so, eight times three equals Cid might have actually killed his own aunt. And that means that we have just met the Rainmaker, the mass murderer who turned to crime as an adult after seeing his own (surrogate) mother killed.

Well, tickle my momplex and call me Norma Bates -- what do you do when your adorable baby boy, whom you've already abandoned once, has a telekinetic power that can and will be used for homicidal purposes? You convince people that if you raise him right, he'll use his powers for good! He won't turn into a homicidal maniac! (Every parent's true goal, really.) Younger Joe actually agrees, and later realizes that (super spoiler) he is the one who causes Cid to become the Rainmaker because his older self is willing to shoot Sarah to get to Cid (the death of Cid's aunt is another MacGuffin), an act that will set the wheels of badness in motion. So (another super spoiler) Younger Joe kills himself, and now, Cid will surely channel his murderous telekinetic powers into saving abandoned puppies...or something.

The TK element actually has a ton of levels that can be explored -- how many people with the mutation have heightened powers, how has the future utilized these powers, what are the rights of those with powers, etc. But the story of Looper isn't about TK. It's about ultimately realizing where trouble starts and putting an end to it. And it's also about Joe. That's why telekinesis is nothing but a MacGuffin -- a great one.

Photo credit: Sony Pictures


      1. Except, weirdly, the old loops who had their bodies changed (notes on arms, fingers chopped off) always reacted as if they suddenly appeared/disappeared, rather than being like “oh, this old note on my arm? No idea, had that for years.”

        1.  Because, as noted, it takes a short, but definite period of time for the memories to sink in. It would have been a shock, but Old Joe would have just switched hands and shot Sarah.

          1. Yes, but the change ripples to the future self in the present instantly, without the future self having done anything different between the two “nows.”

            E.g. they cut off young Seth’s legs. Old Seth’s legs instantly disappear, and his shoes fall off and lie in the street.

            Why was old Seth wearing shoes if his legs had been cut off 30 years earlier?

            This is all I meant. The “time ripple” just jumps the 30 years and hits the future self at a very specific point in time (and then does some “clouding up” of memories after).

          2.  yeah I actually thought this was pretty fascinating — it both implies that all times are ‘now,’ and the universe doesn’t care if it doesn’t make sense, much like the universe not caring that no one ‘invented’ the terminator chip.

            Which leads to a really bizarre situation, where, because all times are ‘now,’ including all of the moments of Seth’s death, that means that his finger is being cut off when it’s on the fence — and also when he is running up to the fence, and also 3 years before that, and also at the moment it is being done.  Every single moment of his life after the cutting he is having his finger cut off — we are just seeing one example of it.   Every frame of film is it’s own recursive reel of film.  This also solves your issue of he lives his whole life with his finger cut off — that is true for one frame.  But as things change across infinite nows, it becomes infinitely recursive.  Extremely strange idea, whether the filmmaker meant to imply this or not, it sort of has to work like this, i believe.

    1. Though why old You wouldn’t have had 30 years to attach a precision mid-21st Century prosthetic isn’t explored.

      The movie has a lot of time travel handwaving, really. Doc Brown Is Not Impressed.

  1. The Rainmaker was closing the loopers’ loops, calling the shots on all the organized criminals who caused Joe to come and kill his mother. The loopers kill themselves. What about everyone else to blame? Sounds like the Rainmaker was making short work of them too.

    Maybe the Rainmaker was destined to be a superhero after all. And Young Joe’s suicide has screwed it up, leaving the skeezy syndicates in charge.

    1. Good point — what was so bad about the Rainmaker anyway, besides kinda-maybe being responsible for the hero’s wife’s death?

      He was never described as being any worse than the existing crime lords, who, by the way, were also in the habit of killing loopers and probably casually shooting their wives too.

      1. and obviously the Rainmaker was operating extra-legally, so who cares if he just kills all the Loopers in the future. he’s not worried about getting arrested…

        there’s such a convoluted trail of sludge required to make anything even half-way make sense in Looper that the things that MIGHT make sense end up tasting like ashes. even if there was a reason to send Loopers back to the past to be killed, you’d find a much simpler, surer way of doing it. Like sending them to the middle of the ocean. Or, I dunno, having someone OTHER THAN THEMSELVES kill them. 

        1. But that wouldn’t close the loop. You’d then have to have the future version of that person sent back to be killed by someone who’s future version would have to be sent back ad infinitum.

          1.  …So does it therefore stand to reason that the Rainmaker has been the employer sending the victims back the entire time? He is trying to kill all Loopers: anyone and everyone who might’ve had a hand in his mother’s death, just as Old Joe is trying to kill any child who may prove to have a hand in his wife’s death.

          2. ahem. HIS MOTHER WAS NEVER KILLED. in any timeline. in any version of history. never. this is the most ginormous problem with Looper. the thing that everyone is trying to keep from happening, which caused all the problems and made Cid send men to accidentally kill Old Joe’s wife and made Old Joe want to kill Cid: it NEVER HAPPENED. Old Joe never kills Sarah. Never. As in it never happens. Ever. So that motivation for everything in the film. Does Not Exist. 

    2. This confused me a bit. Young Joe told us about the loops being closed as part of the deal when you become a looper. They knew that was going to happen someday, and then they get 30 years to live, then are sent back. That was all setup prior to the Rainmaker showing up & killing/consolidating the future crime syndicates. So, we see Joe’s 30 years briefly, then it seems like the guys who show up to grab him are simply there to fulfill his looper contract & send him back. They never explain why the Rainmaker would care about him at that point. Why bother fulfilling the 30-year lopper contracts that his rivals created?

  2. how do i go back in time and actually read the “(super spoiler)”s?   and in the end of such reviews might we have a summary of how much of $11.5 (plus junior-mints) the reviewer actually believes the film is worth?

    1. The “super spoilers” are just white text on white background. If you highlight them they will appear.

  3. I thought LOOPER was a terrible time travel movie — it made no sense and was so full of logical plot holes to be almost unwatchable. But while I thought it was a terrible time travel movie, I thought it was an AMAZING superhero origin story movie.

    1. There’s an interesting book by Paul Nahin that tries to explain what types of time travel actually make some sort of physical sense in the meaning of how physicists think time travel could theoretically work. Unfortunately, the conclusion is any sort of time travel that involves changing the past is out, which rules out pretty much any sort of entertaining time travel story except the “Twilight Zone” type story where the time traveller is responsible for causing something that happened all along.

  4. Electrical engineers occasionally build circuits that behave like the plots of time-travel films.

    They drive themselves crazy trying to figure out what is going on, only to discover that there’s a sneaky little positive-feedback path they hadn’t thought of.

  5. I’d just like to throw a big one out here. Apparently killing a person is so high risk that future criminals send their targets back to the past. Obviously extreme. Yet they shoot Bruce Willis’ wife on a whim when they obviously have stunning weapons!

    Still plot-serving paradoxes are part of the charm of the film – and to its credit they don’t get in the way of a great movie.

    1. The director explained that the mob made a big mistake there, and that’s why they burn the house down after, as a shaky cover-up

      1. if burning down a house is a good enough cover, why bother with the time machines? and if you have a time machine, why bother doing something so dumb as sending old retired assassins back to be killed? you’re the Rainmaker. kill who you want and let them try and arrest you. and really? why would anyone care? 

        this film had some of the lamest explanations i’ve ever seen. there are so many problems with it that when i start to point one out i get distracted by 12 others that are worse. 

  6. While the movie was great, the ending creates a paradox that undoes the entire film.  When young Joe kills himself at that point in time, then it’s impossible for old Joe to go back in time and set off the series of events that lead young Joe to the specific moment.  So theoretically, time should reset it self (following wibbly wobbly timey wimey logic) bringing Joe back to the exact moment when older Joe traveled back in time, either starting the entire chain of events over again or set off an entirely new chain of events.  Based on the two scenarios played out in the film (young Joe kills old Joe/old Joe gets away), there could be countless timelines produced.

    1. The movie uses a really strange mix of one-timeline and multiple-timeline rules, but seems to be consistent-ish.  If you’re not immediately using a time machine, you alter only the present and future, not the past.  But stuff that happens to you still impacts your (alternate-)future self in predictable ways.  Chop up Young Seth, and Old Seth is dismembered and traumatized, but still on the run.  (Kill Young Seth, and Old Seth vanishes, but so does the gold, or at least that would be my conjecture for why Abe thinks killing him would be a step too far.)  Kill Young Joe, and Old Joe vanishes, but all the events between when Old Joe appeared and when he disappeared are otherwise unaltered.  Old Joe shows up at a point when he could be from that timeline, disappears at the point where it’s absolutely clear he’s not.

      So you end up with timelines permanently altered by people interacting with potential-but-not-actual time-travelled versions of themselves.  I don’t know if that makes for a particularly sensible set of time-travel physics, but it works pretty well narratively.

      1. It works if you take the rule that they can only go back 30 years in time – thus how old Joe was “late” to his execution – so anything that happens to Young Joe becomes concrete and clear in Old Joe’s mind. Think of it as parallel timelines, offset by 30 years.

  7. LOOPER started out as a great time travel movie, until someone time traveled back to screw with the script in order to make time travel seem Oh So Much More Ridiculous And Less Likely To Ever Happen Really It Won’t.

  8. I’m not sure I liked the TK, besides allowing us to see some cool scenes of people floating and a heart exploding.

    It wasn’t necessary. It just forced a second unnecessary suspension of disbelief: “Ok, we’re in a world where time travel exists. Oh, and I guess we’re also in a world where a “mutation” causes people to have magic powers. Yes, just like the X-Men, yes.”

    The only purpose for the TK was to explain how this kid could take control of the crime bosses, but that was a pretty weak explanation. I’d rather the kid be an evil genius than him just having some magic power that allowed him to blow up everyone.

    From the point of view of cinematics, however, the TK was great.

  9. OK – the thing that got me was that they had to have loopers because they couldn’t get rid of bodies in the future …. but they shot his wife

    And Bruce Willis now seems to be typecast as the troubled time traveller sent back to save the world who in turn ends up (or almost ends up) causing exactly what he was trying to save it from

  10. If time-travel movies were super accurate, there wouldn’t be any time-travel movies.

    I excused a lot of the paradoxes as ‘tangential universes’; which I imagine the writer could use as an excuse as to why the movie isn’t undone by its own resolution. 

    Sci-fi meant for general audiences seem to have to take a lot of liberties in logic so as to not bog down the narrative. I, personally, enjoyed the movie and recommend it to my friends who have an interest in the sci-fi.

  11. I think the biggest failure of this review and of the commenters is the delightful and completely deluded assumption that any movie about time travel can make sense whatsoever once you apply logic to it.

    I, for one, go to movies to forget entirely about logic and let them tell me a story. I done got told, and counted my $5 matinee ticket a total bargain.

  12. I love that the movie sets up Joe as both the solution to and the perpetuater of the whole Rainmaker scenario.  Old Joe inadvertently fixes the problem by having Young Joe end up at the right place and time to get Sarah to reconnect with her son.  But if not stopped, Old Joe would inadvertently break things again by killing Sarah in his attempt to kill Cid.

    It fits into the usual pattern of stories about the cycle of revenge, and how trying to break the cycle of revenge through violence ends up perpetuating it.  The movie does a really great job with time-travel-loops as metaphor for other sorts of vicious cycles (addiction, revenge).

  13. I also enjoyed Looper but why didn’t the future bad guys just shoot their target *then* put him in the time machine? Other than there would be no film in that case. Time travel films often require suspension of intelligence to have a good time and Looper is no exception. Primer however…

    1.  OR, if you can send someone you want to get rid of to a precise spot in a cane field, why not just send them into the maw of an active volcano? Or tie an anvil to them, toss ’em into the time machine, and send them to the middle of the Arctic ocean?

      1. “…..Curiously, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias, as it fell, was, “Oh no, not again!” Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly *why* the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the universe than we do now.” 

    2. They can’t shoot them in the future because it would set off their tracking chip. They could probably poison them though, but why risk it if they still have to send them back

      1.  How come people disappearing from time in 2074 also doesn’t set off the tracking chip, or make it drop off the database? Would be the same effect as killing someone, I think. Don’t the police notice a whole bunch of people going missing in the same part of Shanghai?

        And how come the authorities in 2074 don’t know about loopers, crim-victim disposal and the time machine? – uninvolved people like Emily Blunt know about loopers even before Joe tells her, and that’s back in 2044 when time travel doesn’t exist yet. And you can’t say the authorities are all corrupt – in that case, disposing of a few bodies would be simple enough.

  14. I’m still trying to make sense of one of the loops: Young Joe is there when Old Joe first shows up (late) without the bag on his head. I get that loop. But what about the loop right after that when Old Joe shows up on time with the bag on his head and the gold strapped to his back. It shows us how Young Joe turns into Old Joe to begin with, but it seems out of order… Why was that loop necessary? And how does it work?

    1. That’s the unaltered “original” history that Old Joe experienced. They ran that sequence just to give some background on the character and explain his motivation for running around going Terminator on little kids.

      It was a bit confusing to me too as I watched it, they did a bad job tying the sequence to its owner. But as the movie moved on it made more sense

  15. I would be hard pressed to think up a film that makes less sense than Looper. Joe (old) kills Sarah to create the Rainmaker (Cid) who kills Joe’s future-wife. Except in the timeline in which Joe got married Old Joe got iced by Young Joe. So… Cid would have grown up with Sarah… which is more or less what will happen when Young Joe kills himself.

    Say huh what? Bad time travel logic is commonplace in films. The time travel in this one sucks big hairy spider eggs. It’s completely nonsensical. And I say this as a guy who spent the past two months looking forward to Looper and writing posts about Rian Johnson and how much I love his previous work ( 

  16.  Since TK is intentionally backgrounded until the third act, I think defining it as a “MacGuffin” is both a pretty big stretch and also a pretty insulting reduction. In fact, I think the movie is very clever in the way it establishes the rules of the world without using them to propel the plot. Which is to say that TK is just worldbuilding garnish until it needs to be something bigger. Perhaps the phrase Jamie was looking for was “plot device.” And if you’re going to criticise something for having those, maybe experimental theatre is more your thing.

    Personally, I thought the actual plot engine of the film (Will Present Joe stop Future Joe?) was about as elegant as they come. It’s the competition between two equally powerful forces with incompatible interests (Also see: Heat, the Dark Knight). The fact that such a substantial meal came served in a deliciously pulpy scifi reduction was just a bonus.

    I really don’t want this to come off as too Angry-Internet-Man — while I loved Looper, I also recognize there’s plenty about it to pick apart, if you were so inclined. But seriously, dude: Did you even read the TV tropes article you link?

    1. I agree. I read the MacGuffin article and thought “this isn’t what the TK was at all.”

      A MacGuffin sounds like an arbitrary detail to provide some reason for the plot. E.g. “The movie is about how these two guys pull off a great heist.” “What are they stealing?” “I dunno, it doesn’t matter. Some diamond.”

      To the extent that the TK could have been omitted from the film and the kid could have been powerful in some other way, I guess this almost fits the bill. But in the actual existing movie the TK itself was pretty darn important.

    2. Exactly. TK wasn’t a MacGuffin at all. It wasn’t what main character was after. It would be better to call it a Chekhov’s gun. If anything the time travel stuff and Bruce Willis was a MacGuffin.

      And, in my opinion, no mater what you call it, it wasn’t well done. The minute the TK was included I said to myself, “Well, that’s what the movie is really about” because otherwise there is no reason for it to be in there. And really, there isn’t any reason for TK to exist in this world except so they could show some cool stuff happening when the kid freaked out. The Rainmaker could have easily came to power just like anyone else did. TK existing in this world hurt my enjoyment of the film a lot because it was so pointless.

      1.  Good catch.  The TK is much more a Chekhov’s Gun than a MacGuffin.  The MacGuffin is always a goal or object that is being pursued.  Classic examples are the briefcase in Ronin or Hitchock’s example of how in heist movies it is usually a necklace.

        1. Thank you all of your for saying this. The TK was NOT a MacGuffin. I think there arguably is one, but TK was not it. 

  17. Question: There’s a number of reasons to assume that it’s not the case, but where do folks put the odds for Murder Babby #2 (Suzie’s kid) being Joe’s kid, too?

    1. I thought the odds were pretty high, but then, the film made us wonder if Abe and Kid Blue were the same person, if Cid and Joe were the same person, and so on. The combo of people-who-are-really-other-people and narrative parallels made for a lot of “is he or isn’t he?” throughout the film.

  18. Argh! That isn’t what that word means.  “MacGuffin” doesn’t mean “red herring” or “plot point that doesn’t become important until later”, it’s the object of multiple characters’ quest.  It’s a plot motivator where the details don’t matter.  TK didn’t motivate any on-screen actions for the vast majority of the film, so it isn’t a MacGuffin at all.

    You’d have an easier time arguing that young Joe himself is the MacGuffin, since he’s chased by multiple parties even after old Joe is caught, begging the question why he was being sought to begin with (though that would also be wrong).

    1. thank you! 
      in fact, “MacGuffin” isn’t a thing at all, it’s “maguffin”. and yes, this post seems to use it interchangeably with Red Herring which is incorrect. A maguffin is generally described as something which drives the story forward (usually initially) but isn’t essential to the plot.
      The classic example of a maguffin would be the bag of money that janet leigh steals in Psycho. you know it’s a maguffin because fully half the people reading this will be like “what bag of fucking money?”

  19. Thanks Jaime, this was a wonderful read on TK as MacGuffin and I appreciated the spoiler alerts and white text!! That was awesome!

    I found this movie very entertaining, thrilling and not predictable AND it didn’t have an impossible amount of robots attacking or women post-c-section jumping over crevices. I watch Doctor Who so discrepancies in time travel theory don’t bother me. But I do ask myself why don’t they kill the person before they send them through the time machine?

    1. Worth mentioning that Primer director Shane Carruth also worked on Looper (Rian Johnson sought him out apparently)

    2.  12 Monkeys hasn’t come up, but until Primer (with infinite worlds), this was the only film that did time travel really well (with a frozen, closed loop).

  20. Can we also talk a bit about the horrifying dismemberment scene? And how it implies, based on the movie’s internal logic, that in order for Paul Dano’s loop not to have simply disappeared, he was kept alive for the next thirty years? 

    Absolutely chilling. I’m going to be haunted by that scene for a while.

    1. That scene makes clear that even though these mobsters are a law unto themselves, they still respect some kind of rules about cause and effect. It got me to wondering if chaotic evil makes one less predictable, or more so?

  21. They say, right there in the movie, that trying to figure out the time travel stuff is a pointless exercise. They say that because the movie’s not -about- time travel, nor about figuring out if any of that stuff would ever work.

    I saw the paradoxes even as I was watching it but I didn’t care because the stuff the movie was really about was so damned interesting to ponder against the admittedly flawed backdrop.  I went in expecting very little based on the interesting but thin premise from the trailer, and then it wound up being one of the most fascinating tales of sacrifice and redemption I’ve ever seen.

  22. So, I’d say time travel is the macguffin here. The movie’s not actually about time travel. It’s about two (or one) really selfish character(s). Both version of Joe are willing to do some really horrific things to preserve their own little oasis of comfort. Young Joe rats out a friend and is willing to shoot his future self, old Joe is willing to travel back in time and kill kids, just to get his wife back.

    In both cases, we’re seeing a pretty self-centered view of the world. The real payoff is not from time travel, but it is where Young Joe finally makes a non-selfish decision.

    I agree: paradoxes and some problems with plot holes. Why not send people to volcanoes, or 1000000000 BC? What about old joe’s wife? If killing people in the 2080 is really that hard to do, why would people be afraid of guns? “What are you going to do, shoot me?”

    But all of that ultimately doesn’t matter too much. The movie is really about the fractured, self-indulgent Joe. That’s where it shines, and at the end of the day, that’s why I loved the movie.

  23. Like the movie Signs has nothing to do, really, with alien invasion, Looper has little to do with time travel. Looper is about Joe’s journey. Young Joe actually becomes something he never managed to become after 30 years of living and turning into Old Joe. Even though Old Joe found love, he never learned what it was to love someone selflessly. For that reason alone, Looper was a wonderful movie. Time-travel as a plot device to show that wisdom comes not with age, but from connections with other people, like Signs used alien invasion as a device to show how a man broken by grief can regain his faith.

    That will be the first and last time I ever defend an M. Night Shyamalan movie, by the way.

    1. All of these arguments are bizarre. I can’t understand if you’re being sarcastic, but it’s equivalent to the original thesis, so I’ll respond as if you are.

      How does it make sense to say this movie isn’t about time travel, or Signs isn’t about aliens? It’s the same as saying The Sixth Sense isn’t about a kid who can see dead people — it’s just about the kid’s relationship to Bruce. Or The Lord of The Rings isn’t about Hobbits and Elves and Orcs, it’s just about true friendship and finding yourself.

      What rot. All of these things are elements of these stories, but the stories still get to also be about what they’re nominally about. We don’t have to turn every frikking analysis of a movie into a college English paper.

      You can’t just say that, e.g. every story of “finding oneself” is just about finding oneself, and that all the other details of the story are interchangeable “maguffins” or whatever. I mean, sure you can argue that, but what a sad, reductionist way of looking at the world. Sometimes a story gets to be about the story itself as well.

  24. I thought the film was about why you can’t go back in time to kill Hitler if your goal is to prevent the holocaust. So many people love to blame one man for the deaths of 6 million while ignoring all the infrastructure of evil that made the deed possible.

     The reasons why you can’t prevent the holocaust by going back in time to murder a child are complicated and murky, but this film was dazzlingly eloquent  on that count.

  25. Extremely well written and a great review.  Personally I didn’t like the movie too much but this has given a new approach to looking at the film and i dislike it less. 

  26. This film, like “Eyes Wide Shut” or “American Beauty” to pick two, tells us more about the reviewer than about the film. I think this comment thread proves that several divergent movies were watched here. 

    Personally, I like the superhero origin one.  

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