Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Flying with De Niro: How "Heat" got me thinking

I obviously had only one choice on the 25-hour flight towards Edinburgh: stay awake and watch as many action movies as possible. Unfortunately, I only got through five before I passed out from tiredness and overeating (Qatar Airways definitely don’t skimp on the food). I started out with Heat (dir. Michael Mann, 1995) not realising I’d already seen it – but the rewatching got me thinking about the gender dynamics of action cinema and in particular, heist-films.

Pacino as Lt. Hanna
Heat is a story about two men, how they work, what they might prioritise, and the personal cost associated with these prioritisations. McCauley (Robert De Niro) is a high-profile thief and heist-master; Lt. Hanna (Al Pacino) is a jaded yet relentless cop obsessed with catching McCauley. The film is basically an exploration of what happens when you live by McCauley’s motto, Do not have any attachments, do not have anything in your life you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner.” Both McCauley and Hanna are willing to walk out on relationships to  respectively avoid getting arrested/catch the bad guy. By "relationships", I mean both friendships with other men (and potentially each other) and also with women. McCauley walks out on a life of companionship with the sweet Eadie, who stays with him even after discovering he is a criminal, and Hanna walks out on his wife Justine and his stepdaughter, Lauren, who he has a soft sport for.

Even though Heat is not predictable and keeps you on the edge of your seat, the plot is not that surprising once it pans out. Experience tells us that thieves in heist-films usually end up with the girl and/or the prize (think The Italian Job, Inside Man, National Treasure, Gone in 60 Seconds, Ocean’s 11) as they are usually told from the thieves’ perspective, and we like seeing them stick it to the man. The alternative is we see it from the cop’s perspective and want to see justice done, so the thieves end up dead and the cop gets the girl (think Point Break, and all James Bond films). Heat’s originality lies in the fact we end up sympathetic to both cop and thief, wanting both to succeed, but also thinking the two of them are somewhat selfish, blinkered men who can’t see what’s important in life. Because McCauley and Hanna essentially lead the same life despite being on different sides of the law, it’s no wonder they both die: McCauley literally, as he is shot, and Hanna figuratively, as he has given up his family and just shot the one man who understood him and who, in a way, respected him.

Heat is a clever exploration of the heist protagonist and antagonist, deals effectively with moral ambiguity, and demonstrates the personal cost of McCauley and Hanna’s choices in a relatively moving way. However: what the heck happened to the women?

Justine, Eadie, Lauren: three women whose actions and presence are the main catalysts for the dilemmas Hanna and McCauley find themselves in, and yet they are written out of the story without so much as a backward glance. The final cut of Lauren is her bloodied body after she tries to commit suicide; the final shot of Justine is her trying not to cry as Hanna has just left their marriage for good; the final shot of Eadie is her bewildered face as McCauley walks out on her without explanation. The film ends with the chase between Hanna and McCauley and you get the impression that the women’s lives are merely the collateral damage of a boys’ club which deals with the “real” issues of life, such as thievery and justice.

But how do these women go about piecing their lives back together? How have they been affected by the actions of the men in their lives? Eadie, already suffering from chronic loneliness, surely lost all faith in all relationships after seeing McCauley walk away from her. Lauren just tried to kill herself and will wake up to find that her stepfather, the one person who vaguely cared for her, is gone. These are significant issues but there is no set of films that deal with what is going on.

Ashley Judd as self-sacrificial Charlene
I don’t mean to criticize Heat or suggest it should’ve been different. It’s important to explore the complexities of masculine cinematic roles and Heat does this well, and it certainly doesn’t endorse McCauley and Hanna’s treatment of women (more reveals it as a grim reality). Besides, Eadie, Justine and Lauren are in no way portrayed as weak or subservient – they are strong, bold and not afraid to stand up for themselves. In fact the character I admired most was Charlene (the wife of Chris, McCauley’s crime partner) who was the only person to actually take a risk and make a sacrifice for the person whom she loved (arguably she put her kid at risk in the choices she made, but the principal remains that she was the only character in the entire film to not put herself first). My point, though, in raising the Justines, Eadies and Laurens of the heist genre is that there is no archetypal narrative trajectory for these women: we simply don’t know what happens to them.

In defence of action cinema (one of my true loves) the genre has actually done a lot for women. The role of the gun-fighting, fist-fighting female is now common (though sometimes over-sexualized – but that is a another discussion altogether). This woman may be a reasonably 2D character (like Scarlett Johansson’s character in Iron Man 2) or a complex one (think Uma in the Kill Bills, Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, and to take it back to my faves, Princess Leia and Buffy). These may not be heist films per se, but you get the drift. 2D or 3D, these representations have been seminal in the development of female characterisation in cinema. What we rarely see, though, is what happens to the wives, the girlfriends, those who have been dropped when the heat’s around the corner. Romantic-drama The Time Traveller’s Wife deals with this to an extent (and actually the family-action flick Hancock through Charlize Theron’s character does quite a job of it). But I wish there more! Justine and Charlene were so interesting and drove the whole storyline – it’s such a travesty that these bold women have been ignored, when we know (mostly) what happens to any male character – even the periphery ones – in any heist film (they get the money, get the girl, or die and lose the girl).
To be honest I think feminists have had so much to say about cinema for so long because the archetypal trajectory for females in heist films is one where women get written out of stories – it is by nature problematic. However: never a fan of “victim” feminism, I will end by saying that the Justines, Eadies and Laurens of cinema have an important place in films like Heat, though films like Heat shouldn't dictate the representation of women in action films. Also, maybe I should give myself a kick up the bum and write some stories about these female characters myself, instead of complaining that no-one else has!

NB. Regarding Hancock, was anyone else mildly nauseated by (and yet strangely appreciative of) Charlize Theron’s eyeliner and low-cutted-ness once she became all hardcore and powery? Part of the feminist in me wishes they’d kept her all pretty and house-wife-like – the other part just thinks that all chicks should wear that outfit, all the time.


  1. Interesting thinking Julz. Especially given that I sometimes think of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino as the same person. Although A-Pac is undeniably cooler.

  2. Jules your blog is so addictive, this was such a good read!

    Concerning Heat... two words for you, Val Kilmer.

    Concerning Hancock. Many like to hate this film and i completely understand it is no masterpiece. But i find it quite infectious. It's a movie i really enjoy watching, It's entertaining and genuinely funny for the most part but what most appeals to me is the mood swing which happens toward the end of the film. It drops us in the midst of an age old super hero love story which somehow in this case is quite an enjoyable cliché. In this scene Theron is on her death bed and Smith seems to shift into another gear. The storm of selfless emotion is believable from Smith and he wills his battered body as far away from Theron as he can in order to save her life. This is such a strong visual and presented beautifully by director Peter Berg (thank you IMDB), i feel he really nailed this scene... It's a cocktail of bad ass selflessness, love, leather, bullets and unfortunately a dash of Jason Bateman.