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Smith

Cast: Ray Liotta, Virginia Madsen, Simon Baker, Franky G, Amy Smart, Jonny Lee Miller, Shohreh Aghdashloo
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm ET

(CBS; US: 19 Sep 2006)

Still Lives

Oily marks appear on walls
Where pleasure moments hung before the takeover.
The sweeping insensitivity of this still life.
—Imogen Heap, “Hide and Seek”


Just take it easy. Nobody wants to hurt anybody here, okay?
—Bobby (Ray Liotta)



Faces are hard to read in Smith. Sometimes, this inscrutability is obvious, even exaggerated, as in the first moments of the pilot, in which a crew of thieves wearing shiny white masks slam their way onto a speedboat, the soundtrack frantic with the engines roar and not-so-distant sirens. One of the team members is bleeding, and red is smeared all over crew chief Bobby (Ray Liotta), who becomes recognizable only when he removes his mask in order to inspect the injury. “How bad is it?” asks the boat driver. Bobby stands and recedes into the night’s darkness, and the camera careens to show his still masked partners. While the situation is plain—something’s gone very wrong—Bobby’s wordless reaction is less clear. Over a couple of shadowy seconds, his face shows shock, calculation, and urgency, as well as an eerie stillness.


Dissolve to “Sixty Minutes Earlier,” where Bobby’s face displays a different sort of calm. He’s on the steps of the fictional Tanner Museum in Pittsburgh, from which he and his crew will be stealing a painting. The camera close, he scopes the street and stairway, pulls back his black overcoat sleeve to check his watch. “Okay, we’re a go.”


Bobby’s a professional thief, well-outfitted and prodigiously well-prepared. His crew is similarly ready, each step of the operation timed to the last instant. Or so it appears. Smith is, in part, about the deceptiveness of appearances: as it runs through the robbery for the first time, the actors hit their marks precisely: Annie (Amy Smart) staggers from out of an alley across the street, her face bloodied as she screams for help, drawing the attention of nearby policemen. At this point Bobby and company slip into action: three men in black mounting the white stairs as if they are one, the camera tracking their single purpose so it looks fluid, swift, elegant.


It’s a striking image, to be repeated later in the episode, when a repetition of the robbery from other angles reveals missteps and off the cuff decisions. In both versions of the event, in addition to cuts from Annie outside to the guys inside, a bank of security video monitors provides an assortment of frames, suggesting again that nothing you think you see is the entire picture. Each piece is potentially inexact and explosive.


These pieces extend beyond the robbery. Though the action portion of the Smith pilot is thrilling and deft (courtesy of DP Jonathan Freeman), the slower, more overtly domestic scenes are equally remarkable. Consider the first frames showing Bobby’s bedroom, where he lies in golden lit serenity with his wife Hope (Virginia Madsen). As she rises to leave, he catches her, his hand on her shoulder as she looks down. The little bit of intimacy that follows offers one of the few times when Hope smiles in the pilot: like her husband, whose work may or may not be known to her, she keeps secrets.


Their morning routines suggest why they might do so. Their two kids are generically sweet, their house is generically beige, nestled on a suburban hillside among many just like it. Bobby’s car is beige, his job is beige—he sells plastic products for a fellow who owes something to Bobby’s real boss, Charlie (Shohreh Aghdashloo). She picks and arranges the heists, and he assembles his crew. Though he suggests that he wants out (“I’ve got Hope,” he explains, “I’ve got the kids. I can’t. I’m done”), he agrees to a few more. As it doesn’t appear he has an especially swank lifestyle to maintain, Bobby’s attraction to the job is more emotional, even psychological.


As he awaits his team on a rooftop parking lot at night, each screechy arrival makes him smile. They’re his other family, and though they’re introduced one by one, as in other pilot episodes introducing ensembles, this group appears more ominous than most. Antic distraction Annie works as a high-kicking showgirl, her daunting makeup and crisply curved hairstyle making her face look otherworldly, hinting at the appeal she holds for Tom (Jonny Lee Miller). The roughest-looking team member, wheelman Joe (Franky G), keeps undercover at a garage, where he chivalrously yearns for Macy (Valarie Rae Miller), weary mother and wife of a buddy with a gambling problem.


Perhaps the most usual crook of the bunch, Jeff (Simon Baker) first appears surfing in Hawaii, so supple and pretty that his rugged narcissism seems almost an afterthought. But, as he shows later in his dealings with Tom (advising him to steer clear of Annie (“Don’t do it again, man. She’s trouble, you know she is”), he’s sensible and focused as well, cold-hearted and sure he’s right. The fact that he’s a methodical, painfully confident hitman only makes his pathology make sense: when he kicks a one-night stand’s cat off a bed, then brings it home with him, his complications turn both more specific and more disturbing.


Such complications make Smith feel poised between new and familiar. Certainly, it makes use of some generic assumptions and plot points concerning the daily juggling required of such high-end, super-clever thieves who maintain regular-seeming lives. (This to the point that the pilot episode calls to mind the pilot for the brilliant Thief, as it similarly intertwines relationships between crew and family.) Bobby’s relationship with Hope (he’s “got Hope,” and then again, he doesn’t, “hope” meaning variously) already figures the impossibility of being or even seeming “regular.”


As Bobby tells Hope—who works in a dentist’s office, another beige sort of activity—he’s headed to “St. Louis” to sell some cups, he appears in close-up, packing for his trip. The shot reverses to foreground Hope, putting on earrings as she looks in a mirror: this makes for two Hopes in the shot, with Bobby blurred in the background, behind her reflection. Framed by the window, he seems in another space. A series of rack focuses transports you from space to space, as Hope and Bobby lie to one another, know they’re lying, and still, perform a kind of trust while not looking at one another. He doesn’t quite explain the trip she doesn’t ant him to take (“It’s part of my job, sweetheart”) and goes on to inject the other life she plainly resents (by asking her to pick up a wedding gift for Charlie’s daughter). A rack back to Hope emphasizes her effort to along though she resists, her mask of a face simultaneously beautiful, tense, and fraught.


“You don’t think it’s a bad idea for you to be hanging around her?” asks Hope. And suddenly, they’re inside a completely regular-seeming conflict, as one partner asks the other to go through motions, while she considers her options, silently, without pushing the discord into outright argument. It’s not like Bobby is always so calm (one scene displays that he can be brutal, slamming a team member up against a bright red brick wall, or Something Wild-ishly sinister, as when he smiles at his plastics boss’ effort to contain him), but he and Hope have made a tentative peace.


This peace is based on their mutual agreement not to look into each other’s faces, not to parse truth and fiction. And so Smith invites you to look into their faces and do your own parsing.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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