“Your man does good work.”
“That’s why I use him.”
The first shot of Heist is of a shotgun, or more precisely hands holding a shotgun. A shotgun exists as a tool, it has a function: to harm, kill, or threaten other people. When the shotgun goes off in your hands and hits you by accident, that function has been botched. Mamet’s dialogue and characters in Heist always work as functional devices and people. They perform functions, tasks, and do what they must do: maim, kill, show intelligence, go to their duties, and play their parts. His films are obsessed with performance and deception, how words are not there to enjoy their own existence, as in Tarantino, but to indicate what their characters wish to present to each other. The con man of House Of Games tells Lindsey Crouse that when he plays confidence games, he gives the mark his confidence. The dialogue and drama of Heist is always in the difference between what is said and what is done, the “confidence” and what actually happens. And what’s happening is always in question for everyone except Joe (Gene Hackman), the crook at the center of the film who quietly runs through a series of deceptions as he puts together the main heist of the film.
It’s of note then that Heist doesn’t have a subversive, complex plot. The story is standard – a man tries to pull one last job with his crew, something goes wrong. The film is pure genre in how it takes a basic formula then executes it flawlessly, finding life and drama in the choices the characters make. The important thing then in Heist isn’t Mamet fucking with the old story, it is how the characters and what they say fuck with each other. The translucent masks in the expertly told opening suggest how everyone in the film wear different faces for different people and in part because everything can depend on it.
Take for example the point in the second act when Bobby (the great Delroy Lindo) seemingly quits the Swiss Job. Joe, the head of the crew, hollers at his car driving out of the boatyard in betrayed outrage. After all these years the guy is fucking leaving! How could he do this? Then when Jimmy (Sam Rockwell), the shitbird nephew of the fence who hired them, takes off too, Joe laughs. (One of the ways in which Hackman’s casting is gangbusters is that he makes Joe so good-humored and friendly. You instinctively sympathize with him even at his darkest.) Asks crew member Pinky (Ricky Jay) to send a share to Bobby and goes back inside his place with his wife Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon). Then everything clicks into place, why he wanted Jimmy to get out of there and make believe that the job is off. Everybody in the film is an actor (performing a job) or are acting (putting on a persona). The characters are amused by themselves and aware of their capability to manufacture lines, whole personalities. At points they even act as if the performances of other characters are working for them when they’re not buying a second of it.
But that’s not the only factor in being a crook or I’d be robbing banks myself. Bobby, Pinky, Fran and Joe are in the crew because they do something and do it very, very well. They are careful and don’t do anything that isn’t absolutely necessary. The most important line in the film is “Can he do the thing?” Can he be a part in this machine? Can he make no mistakes? Can he make this happen? And the answer has to be “Yes”.
Jimmy, shoved into the crew by his uncle Bergman (Danny DeVito, violent and hilarious in his absolute disinterest in the bullshit around him), is the X-Factor then. As played by Rockwell, Jimmy is the kind of man who sweeps himself off after getting his ass kicked. Where the rest of the crew as supervised by Joe is neat and precise, Jimmy is impulsive and dangerous, almost pulling a gun on a cop during a botched run at the job and leaving his coat on the hood of a car. It’d be easy to make Jimmy total comic relief especially considering how naturally funny Rockwell is but Mamet makes clear how Jimmy was put on the crew as a spy for Bergman, showing how he knows how to read people (and of course Rockwell has that sly, graceful swagger that makes Jimmy a charmer). Notice how offended he seems that Joe sent Fran to sleep with him and distract him – its partly the move itself, but it’s also that Jimmy isn’t that dumb. Jimmy is a performer and he knows how to use that skill. But he’s not an actor.
And it’s action and consequence that drive the story. Joe was caught on a camera so he has to flee to Argentina, and he needs something to live on. Fran is sent by Joe to Jimmy, so she betrays him because Jimmy seems like a safe bet. Bergman realizes he’s been scammed, so he has Pinky killed after ransoming the poor man’s niece for the plan. (Like Heat the character’s weaknesses are rooted in love, not calculation. They can’t quite get with the plan of the man who says to not let yourself get attached to anything you can’t walk out on.) On and on it goes until it comes down to who has the gold and who doesn’t. Final stakes as simple as who gets immunity in The Shield or “Ed Exley Versus Dudley Smith”. Who has what and who can be protected?
I don’t think Heist is about one thing in particular (woof, shades of “I don’t believe one word can sum up a man’s life.”) Like the characters it portrays it carries out a plot (really a job) and does it without fuss or issue. But Mamet does find in his story a bemused amazement at human ability, our capacity to deceive and to care, to kill, to plan and execute something perfectly or near perfectly. It is our function that matters as much as our identities and our choices. We are…so we do.