One of the great pleasures of watching a David Mamet film (or play) is his heightened dialogue and the cadence with which his cast interpret their lines. It’s a very mannered approach, one that some viewers find incredibly off-putting but only adds to the enjoyment for me. So it’s a little disappointing when he delivers a movie where this is mostly absent; it’s tantamount to visiting a museum and finding the prize exhibit missing.
I remember enjoying Heist more on first viewing, which is not a reflection of the devious way in which Mamet the writer unfolds his plots for maximum impact; the best example is his directorial debut House of Games, which I have watched numerous times. Rather, a return visit underlines the feeling that there is something very formulaic going on this time out. The twists and turns are frequently telegraphed due to familiarity with his approach. Even the bluntness of the film’s title informs the viewer that there is no new ground to be broken here.
Nevertheless, the fact that this kind of thing is second nature to the director ensures you can’t help but be drawn in; fake-outs, ruses, double-dealing, scenes shot subjectively so that they appear to mean one thing when the correct perspective is something else entirely.
Gene Hackman’s near-retirement thief (Joe Moore) is manouevred into undertaking another job by duplicitous fence Mickey Bergman (Danny DeVito); the “Swiss job”, involving hijacking the gold from a Swiss airplane. Bergman makes it a condition that his nephew, Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell) joins the crew (which also consists of Delroy Lindo, Ricky Jay and Rebecca Pidgeon as Joe’s wife Fran). And so the players each play their game, the audience having to work to establish who is ahead and who is behind in any given scene.
One of the problems here is that none of the characters ever take on a life of their own; they also seem a little too devised and restrained. And, besides Mamet regulars Pidgeon and Jay, the performers resist Mamet-speak for the most part. This means that when we do hear it, it’s distracting because no one else is reading their lines that way. Also, while I can see how it seemed a good idea at the time, DeVito doesn’t bring sufficient menace to his antagonist. This has the knock-on effect of reducing the odds that are being played for.
Still, if it sounds like I’m doing nothing but griping, it’s because I generally expect something extra from his screenplays. Both of his subsequent films, Spartan and Redbelt, impressed me more (although they received their share of critical barbs). As for Mamet the director, his competency has increased over the years although one senses he will never have much in the way of stylistic flourish. He very much carries the theatre with him, although he hides the seams much better now.