Rated R - Running Time: 1:47 - Released 11/9/01

Written and directed by famous Chicagoan wordsmith David Mamet, Heist is another showcase of the highly stylized dialogue and direction for which the playwright-turned-filmmaker is known. Far from a simple caper movie, Heist contains many complex relationships and lots of strangely stilted dialogue, spoken by some of the best actors working, who are barely able to make it work. Mamet's textual patterns are interesting, but I think he has a great deal of trouble getting his actors to translate them into realistic speech, as was the case with The Spanish Prisoner. On the other hand, perhaps Mamet wants the film to sound affected and unnatural. Perhaps he's so wrapped up in the language of his screenplay, he's uninclined to make it honest to human nature. Like Picasso's cubism, the result is art for art's sake; clever, poetic, fascinating in its way, but not believable.

The story revolves around a gang of crooks led by Joe Moore (Gene Hackman), an aging thief who wants to get out of the business. The fact that during the last job his face was recorded by the security cameras makes his dream to retire even more urgent. However, he is presently stuck, because he promised his shady partner Bergman (Danny DeVito) that his gang would do another, bigger job after the bank heist. The job involves robbing a Swiss cargo plane of several tons of solid gold ingots. Adding to Joe's reticence to fulfill his contract, Bergman insists that Joe take along his nephew, Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell), on this job, to make sure everything stays on the level. This comes as an affront to Joe and his trusted friends Bobby (Delroy Lindo), Pinky (Ricky Jay), and his wife Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon, a.k.a. Mrs. David Mamet).

As we wind our way through Mamet's overly complex and detour-ridden story, the gang continually fights over Silk's presence, the feasibility of the job, the methods they'll use to execute it, and who's in charge. There are so many twists and turns in the plot line, with one crook outsmarting another and then being outsmarted by one who's currently in the process of being outsmarted by another, it becomes increasingly convoluted, not to mention implausible, and since we don't really learn what exactly the job is until very late in the film, it feels like swimming in the dark. Moreover, there's always the affected nature of Mamet's words. These guys are so busy making clever but uncomfortably delivered wisecracks, they fail to communicate with each other, or with us. As in Prisoner, Pidgeon seems the least equipped to handle her husband's wordplay, making nearly every line she speaks sound like well-rehearsed banality rather than anything resembling normal language. Who knows, maybe she's the only one doing what the director wants.

Having said all this, however, I must backpedal a bit and admit this highly affected text does present something different and sorely needed in the way of screenwriting, namely a poetic style. Rather than simply churning out more forgettable Hollywood movie dialogue, Mamet attempts to bring his story to life through a sort of impressionistic filter. If you look at the script as a sort of epic poem rather than a realistic presentation of events, it works on some level. But the plot is such a meat-and-potatoes crime story, it seems mismatched with the style.

Textual issues aside, the actors do their best (which, considering most of these actors, is notable) to play through the unrealistic dialogue and make their characters live. The story is tense and twisty, so unpredictable that it's almost predictable, but provides an interesting if patently unbelievable bit of cinematic artistry. ***½

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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