In an early scene from David Mamet’s twisty crime thriller Heist, Joe Moore (Gene Hackman) comments on why he’s so good at his craft: “I try to imagine someone smarter than myself. Then I ask myself, ‘What would he do?’”
On the most obvious level, he’s referring to his cover job as a New England shipbuilder, but by extension he could be talking about his more lucrative work as a professional thief—the kind of consummate rip-off artist who can clean out a New York jewelry store in broad daylight. And by still further extension, he could be talking about Mamet himself.
Ever since he burst onto the scene 25 years ago as a Chicago-based theatrical wunderkind with plays like American Buffalo and Sexual Perversity in Chicago, David Mamet has been a writer for the brainier set. He crafted provocations like the sexual harassment drama Oleanna, and ferocious verbal assaults like Glengarry Glen Ross. After moving from stage to screen, he developed a fondness for puzzle thrillers like House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner. Occasionally, the spirit has moved him to give his creations some soul. More often, Mamet has written like a master mechanic of the dramatic form, creating flawless plot engines shot through with sizzling flourishes of dialogue, all pitched to the sharpest person in every room. Emotional resonance just hasn’t seemed to interest him much.
With Heist, Mamet still appears to devote most of his creative energy to staying two steps ahead of viewers who think they’ve seen it all. The story centers on Hackman’s character, Joe, a veteran thief ready to pack it in after he’s caught on a surveillance camera during his latest robbery. Unfortunately for Joe, his shifty fence Bergman (Danny DeVito) isn’t ready to let him sail off into tropical retirement. There’s one more big job he’s counting on Joe to pull off—“the Swiss thing”—and he’s not handing over any run-off-and-hide money until Joe commits to doing it.
So, perhaps for the last time, Joe pulls together his trusty crew—his wife Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon) and his partners Bobby (Delroy Lindo) and Pinky (Ricky Jay). There’s also one wild card in the bunch, Bergman’s cocky nephew Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell), sent along to make sure Joe doesn’t decide to go running off with all the loot.
For years, most discussions about Mamet’s oeuvre revolved around his distinctive verbal choreography, variously described as “clipped,” “staccato,” or some other thesaurus-at-the-ready variation on that theme. He has backed away from that style in recent years, allowing his talent for instantly quotable lines to shine through the stylistic twitches. In Heist, the characters speak like they’ve just fallen out of a James M. Cain novel, using gloriously evocative film noir-ish metaphors like, “She could talk her way out of a sunburn,” and, “He’s so cool, when he goes to bed, sheep count him.” Just listening to people talk in Heist—the words shifting the film’s contemporary setting to a slick time-out-of-time—proves to be almost irresistible fun.
It’s also plenty of fun watching Mamet launch his story into a series of double-, triple- and quintuple-crossing plot contortions. Many of Heist’s sleight-of-hand developments are almost too cool—the kind of stuff that inspires incredulous but impressed giggles (and perhaps some concern at how creatively one can slip a gun past an airport metal detector). There’s never a moment in Heist when it’s obvious exactly what’s going to happen next, who’s on board with the latest back-stabbing, or who’s going to be left standing at the end.
Mamet often seems so concerned with outsmarting his viewers that he turns every presumed twist into a feint-and-dodge leading to the next twist, and after a while it can start to feel like your head is spinning from being jerked in every possible misdirection. While Heist never feels hampered by implausibility, it does feel hampered by choppy editing that blunts the edge of Mamet’s “a-ha!” moments. It’s one thing not to see a twist coming. It’s another thing not to see it when it comes.
And it’s still another thing not to care all that much. By the time Heist rolls out its seventh or eighth bend in the road, you start to realize that there doesn’t seem to be enough at stake. Hackman’s character is supposed to anchor the narrative with his efforts to get out of the game, and Hackman does his now-predictable finest hinting at the danger behind a grandfatherly smile. But Mamet can’t be bothered with building inner lives for his characters; they’re simple, and serve necessary plot functions. It’s not even the case that Mamet’s fascination with trickery creates an off-putting sense that he’s too impressed with his own ingenuity. His characters simply don’t develop into people with souls. It’s hard for a viewer to invest much sympathy in them, especially when you have to invest so much into figuring out who’s screwing over whom.
There are so few filmmakers dedicated to the idea of making viewers think, you want to applaud Mamet simply for his audacious refusal to pander. You can almost lay money on the fact that a Mamet film won’t leave you feeling insulted, and you can set your watch by the seamless progressions of his narratives. But his intellectual gamesmanship often prevents his films from making the leap from intriguing exercises to works that connect with viewers somewhere below the neck. David Mamet keeps writing scripts as though he were trying to imagine someone smarter than himself, when sometimes all he needs to do is imagine someone who’d like to feel.
Heist (R) HH1/2 Directed by David Mamet. Starring Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito and Delroy Lindo.