Caught in the Henhouse
o, I’m dead.” Jake (Edward Burns) introduces himself as the camera looks down on his body, lying in the street, crumpled and bloodied. “I think,” he adds, “it’s because of this redhead.” And you think, okay, I’m in.
You might think this because James Foley’s Confidence opens with a bit of an homage to Sunset Boulevard‘s famous dead-guy-in-a-pool opening. Or because Burns has a part sweet, part gravely voice, good for selling a noirish premise as well as Fidelity Investments. Or maybe because the movie begins with this sort of dare, a jaunty smartness that will be hard to maintain. And with that, it cuts back to “three weeks earlier,” so Jake can explain how he came to be dead.
The action begins with Jake and his boys—Gordo (Paul Giamatti), Miles (Brian Van Holt), and Big Al (Louis Lombardi)—on a job. They’ve got crack timing, can read each other’s slightest signals. At this particular point, they’re in a bar, conning some poor office-worker weasel out of his money, which turns out not to be his money, exactly. The upshot is, when the job looks most successful, Jake’s crew is in serious trouble. Now they owe $$150,000 to a too-tanned, unforgiving, and ADS-afflicted Mr. Big, Winston King (Dustin Hoffman). The threat he poses is summed up in customary fashion: Jake must meet him at his downtown club, all abstract edges and neony lighting, where King is auditioning strippers: Dustin Hoffman, big pimping.
Cocky, Jake plays the hand he’s dealt: he assures King that he’ll sting someone else of his choosing, who turns out to be a guy named Morgan Price (Robert Forster, who, sadly, only appears for a few minutes). If King puts up the front money, Jakes promises a $5 million return (figuring he’ll make be able to keep the money he’s already swindled, and either pay back or get over on King). Cockier, King agrees to let Jake play, but only if he takes in his guy, the apparently standard-issue henchman, Lupus (Franky G). Though Jake protests (“I work with my guys”), the terms are set before he even begins to negotiate. So now, the conning starts in earnest.
Though Jake’s guys are not especially happy with the situation (feeling content with their relatively safe smalltime status), he spins an elaborate scheme, which includes the participation of that redhead he mentioned, Lily (Rachel Weisz), though she isn’t actually a redhead yet. They meet cute when she picks his pocket; Jake admires her nerve, if not exactly her skill, and he makes an offer, Walter Neff-ishly: “I’m talking about a grift, and it pays well.” Though the guys aren’t completely comfortable with bringing in a new partner for this, their biggest job ever, they go along because there has to be a girl in a noiry con movie, to jumpstart heterosexual intrigue, destabilizing and enhancing generic homosocial tensions.
Just so, Lily throws a couple of seeming wrenches in the guys’ posturing. Most ostentatiously, she decides to dye her hair red, which sends Jake into a tizzy over bad luck and his personal past. The guys moan and groan about this omen, but the hair stays red, because Jake’s already brought it up in his framing voiceover. Lily also introduces distrust among the crewmembers (crucial in a con movie). She and Jake share a lustful evening, which either is or isn’t a sign of genuine affection. In turn, Gordo and Miles either see this as a sign of Jake’s debilitating distractedness or womanizing business as usual. How you read these responses ambiguous depends on whether or not you’ve figured out who’s scamming whom.
This figuring is, in turn, either easy or tricky, depending on how much attention you’re paying, or maybe, how many con movies you’ve seen. Jake’s plan is suitably complicated, involving bank embezzling, wire transfers to Belize, a couple of cops on Jake’s payroll, Whitworth (Donal Logue) and Manzano (Luis Guzmán). And, by the way, he’s not in it for the money, he asserts, but for the “fucking principle.” The commotion attracts the attention of a dogged fed, Gunther Butan (Andy Garcia), who’s been tracking Jake and company for years.
This plot point allows for lively crosscutting between marks and surveillance positions—binoculars, cameras, listening devices—which Foley, editor Stuart Levy, and cinematographer Juan Ruiz-Anchia use toward achieving an appropriately slick surface. Among the more striking instances is a scene in which the crew meets at a sidewalk café. The camera shoots them from across the street, traffic passing before a series of increasingly intense close-ups. It matters less what they say than what you’re looking at: style filling in for scanty plot.
Other stylistic flourishes are somewhat less efficient. Doug Jung’s script is structured as a series of flashbacks, embedded within the broad flashback that begins with “So, I’m dead.” Jake’s storytelling is occasioned by the fact that he’s being held at gunpoint by Morgan Price’s guy, the smooth-suited Travis (Morris Chestnut). This suggests that things don’t go completely as planned during the scam, but then again, maybe they do, since Jake is telling the story. Movements between past to present (however you understand these relative concepts here) use wipes and overhead pans, suggesting an eye-of-goddish overview of events, in which motives and backstories are withheld in order to sustain a kind of suspense.
But suspense is always a function of style in a con movie: the plot can twist a bit, but it follows a formula. As dedicated con-catcher Butan observes, “A fox is not a fox until he’s caught in the henhouse.” And once he’s caught—say, in frame one of such a movie, his destiny is clear. The route toward this end can be sophisticated or snappy, obvious or tortuous, but the end isn’t in question. What may be worth asking is what functions are served by such tidy little puzzles, as they reflect a liking for nominal outlaws and system-buckers, even as they reinforce a basic faith in systems.