Our review of Heist (2009), published February 10th, 2010, is also available.
"Everybody needs money. That's why they call it money."
Ah, Mamet. The scintillating dialogue, the labyrinthine plotting, the cold calculating reality that in life no one is exactly what he or she appears to be and none of us really knows anyone else. The rightful heir to Hitchcock returns after several years dabbling in period drama (The Winslow Boy) and quirky comedy (State And Main) to the genre that best showcases his talents: the crime thriller. With a crackerjack script—his best since The Spanish Prisoner—and a superlative cast headlined by the always-excellent Gene Hackman, Mamet pulls you in and doesn't let you go, and keeps you guessing who's doing what to whom until the very last frame.
Facts of the Case
Joe Moore (Gene Hackman, The Royal Tenenbaums) is a career thief looking forward to disappearing into the tropics on his sailboat with his doe-eyed young wife Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mrs. Mamet) and his share of the big haul from their crew's last job, a jewelry store robbery that plays out spectacularly in the opening scenes. Joe's earned the permanent vacation: he's the best there is—a guy so cool, his cohort Don "Pinky" Pincus (Mamet staple Ricky Jay) says, "When he goes to bed, sheep count him." Problem is, Joe's face landed on a security video during that last job, and now his financial backer, Mickey Bergman (Danny DeVito, lightyears from Louie DePalma) is holding that fact—and Joe's cut of the loot—over Joe's head to leverage the reluctant master criminal into pulling one more big score: the hijack of a Geneva-bound gold shipment from a courier plane. As additional assurance of Joe's cooperation, Mickey stirs into the mix his smarmy nephew, apprentice sleazebag Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell, transplanting the persona of his Charlie's Angels character), who's assigned to keep an eye on Joe's crew and make sure "the Swiss thing" goes off without a hitch. Joe's partners Pinky and loyal Bobby Blane (Delroy Lindo, recently on view in The One) aren't enthusiastic, but Mickey has them over the proverbial barrel.
Complications ensue, as only Mamet can concoct them. He escorts us skillfully through the setup and execution of the heist, showing us not only the detailed preparation and clockwork precision with which Joe and his team, veterans of their trade, work, but also the myriad things that can go wrong midstream and how these guys, who've engineered a hundred such jobs, deal with unexpected adversities. And of course, because this is David Mamet behind the lens, everyone involved in the plot has his or her own agenda. At critical points, switcheroo builds upon switcheroo, sometimes in ways you can more or less anticipate, more often in ways you'd never guess but that make perfect sense once you're able, in the end, to view the big picture. Or are you?
The question is: whom can you trust when things go sour, especially when millions of dollars in gold bars are on the line? If you've witnessed any of Mamet's earlier con-or-be-conned capers, you know the answer. Nobody.
It happens all the time in television: two networks simultaneously premiere series using almost identical premises. Here's an example of a similar phenomenon happening in the world of cinema. The outline of Heist is almost word-for-word the same as another film released just a few months earlier: Frank Oz's The Score. Both films feature an aging thief on the verge of retirement (Hackman here, Robert De Niro in The Score) with a beautiful and younger love interest (Pidgeon/Angela Bassett) who gets pressured by his fence (DeVito/Marlon Brando) to execute a final play with a suspect rookie partner (Rockwell/Edward Norton). For my money, though, Heist is by far the more intriguing film for two reasons: Mamet gave himself a more cerebral and less spectacle-driven script to work with (though there's plenty of action in Heist), and Mamet displays more confidence than Oz in the ability of his actors to carry—rather than be carried by—the material.
Gene Hackman seems, at first blush, an odd choice to headline a Mamet opus. Mamet is often criticized by those who dislike/don't comprehend his work because of the peculiar rhythms of his dialogue and the mannered performances he draws from his casts. Hackman, that least mannered and most naturalistic of actors, slips into the role of Joe Moore like a silk smoking jacket because he vanishes so easily into the character, and because Mamet lets Hackman play the role his own way. Like Hackman, Delroy Lindo and Danny DeVito are improbable Mamet players, but also like Hackman, they fit wonderfully here because Mamet permits them the leeway to meld their unique personalities to his script. Their dialogue, while unmistakably Mamet from the first listen, flows with subtle, easy grace and less of the rapid-fire rat-a-tat that fans of The Spanish Prisoner or Glengarry Glen Ross might anticipate going in. (In fact, the film of which Heist reminded me the most was scripted by Mamet—pseudonymously, as Richard Weisz—but helmed by another director, action specialist John Frankenheimer: Ronin.) The result is a more emotionally accessible, less regimented Mamet film that should appeal to thriller lovers who don't usually cotton to Mamet's eccentricities.
Familiar members of the Mamet repertory company shine here too. The ever-marvelous Ricky Jay brings his characteristic droll wit and magician's flair for understated misdirection to his role as Hackman's soft-spoken pal. Jay effortlessly steals most of his scenes and is positively brilliant during an early scene when Pinky facilitates Joe and Bobby's getaway from an uncomfortable encounter by throwing his body in the path of oncoming traffic. Rebecca Pidgeon is fine as well, but then, I always enjoy her work in her husband's films. That she routinely draws fire for her idiosyncratic line readings, so perfectly suited to Mamet's clipped verbalisms, is testimony to the fact that the same "hypocritics" who lambaste Hollywood's relentlessly duplicative product won't embrace anything distinctive and different. I bought Pidgeon completely as Hackman's wife and co-conspirator, despite their obvious age difference—I grasped why these two specific characters would be together, and the convoluted dynamic of their relationship. When Fran looks at Joe and says (as she does twice in the picture, with perversely different underlying motivation each time), "If you say it, it's right," I believed it was. (Unlike, say, True Crime, where seeing a fossilized Clint Eastwood married to, and having affairs with, women in their 30s gave me the willies.)
The one member of the ensemble cast who's not like the others (to borrow a Sesame Street motif) is Sam Rockwell. Is it just me, or is this guy the shallowest actor this side of Keanu Reeves? Admittedly, in Heist he's playing a cocksure creep who's as slick as a Brylcreemed pompadour and twice as gauche, but he's also supposed to be edgy and hair-trigger dangerous and I didn't buy it for a second. Surrounded by so many top-drawer talents, Rockwell comes off as totally out of his league.
Warner presents Heist on DVD in its typical Earl Scheib fashion: no ups, no extras, unless a trailer and skeletal cast and director filmographies are all you demand. The video is a flat-looking 1:85:1 anamorphic transfer with a mushy lack of definition that I think is supposed to be intentional—I don't recall whether the theatrical print had the same effect. The color palette is tightly compressed and a considerable amount of graininess is noticeable throughout the film. This transfer is certainly weaker than I'd expect from a Warner release.
On the audio side, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is serviceable, but focused almost exclusively front and center to clearly render that great Mamet dialogue, which it does. I didn't detect much action at all from the surrounds, except for the occasional explosion or gunshot. (If it weren't for the little red lights, I'd have figured the rear speakers were unplugged.) This isn't a movie with an overabundance of Sturm und Drang, but a trifle more aural variety couldn't hurt. (Oh, sorry—Warner thought an additional dialogue track in Quebecois French qualified as "aural variety.")
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One more comment about Mamet's script. In an age where every thriller plays can-you-top-this when it comes down to the big crime (see last year's Ocean's 11 remake), Mamet not once but twice in the same film posits an elaborate, inventive heist (hence the title) that is absolutely credible in every detail. I believed that these characters, relying on practical skills honed over many years of experience and not special effects or the deus ex machina of a less confident screenwriter, could pull these jobs in real life and not just in a movie. Man, it felt good not to check my brain at the popcorn stand for a change.
David Mamet snatches up the mantle of the Master of Suspense and doesn't even need to send it out for alterations. An entertaining, intelligent crime drama with a sterling cast and the genius of America's most distinctive living screenwriter. Despite the lackluster presentation by a studio that doesn't know DVD from dog biscuits—as their packaging proves yet again—Heist is worthy of repeated viewing, as a clinic on plotting that assumes a triple-digit IQ on the part of the viewer and dialogue you'll be repeating for weeks afterward.
Everybody needs Mamet. That's why they call him Mamet.
Director, cast and crew are acquitted on all charges. Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Cast and Director Filmographies
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