Rebecca Pidgeon has her work cut out for her. Most of her time on screen these days is spent delivering her husband David Mamet’s trademark rat-a-tat dialogue. This is no small feat. It’s a rhythmic and performative effort, you know, to make Mamet’s taut, insinuating language — and especially, the repetition, the repetition — sound like it’s coming from a human being’s mouth. No doubt, this is the challenge and the delight of doing Mamet, on stage or in movies, to wrestle with his words, to slip into his pauses, to make them all seem like yours. Some critics have called Mamet’s language inherently masculine, and it’s true that it is male actors who are most definitively identified with his work: Joe Mantegna and William H. Macy come to mind (and both together, in Homicide — what a treat!). But many others, male and female, have down swinging. The man’s work is hard.
And so Pidgeon might be commended for coming back to it again and again. And this time, in Heist, she’s considerably less stilted than she has been (in, for instance, The Spanish Prisoner), and even plays sultry, in what seems a perversely perky way. And she has serious reason to have her game on, considering her costars. She plays Fran, married to Joe (Gene Hackman), a sometime boat-builder who supports this rather non-lucrative habit by stealing stuff, really big, expensive stuff, with his partner Bobby (Delroy Lindo) and their utility man, Pinky (Ricky Jay). As the film opens, the four of them are on a job, robbing a jewelry store; things go wrong, in a pretty spectacular way: the scene moves quickly, with considerably less language than you usually hear in a Mamet scene, because everyone is so busy trying to keep the imminent disaster under some control.
This blunder means that Joe, who was hoping to retire to an island with his beautiful young wife, is in for one more job (isn’t that always the way?), because they owe front money to their fence, Bergman (Danny DeVito). The team — particularly Joe and Bobby — are reluctant to go again; they map things out carefully, and the big job that Bergman is pushing them to do is looking shaky. Worse, much worse, he wants them to take along his cocky nephew, the ignominiously labeled Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell). Clearly, everything in this Last Job is set up to go wrong.
Like most caper films, this one follows a fairly predictable route. Save for the details of which twists will come when, caper films pretty much do what they do: they’re always about plans — initial plans, foiled plans, and new plans. In Heist, the characters follow suit: they make plans, betray each other, play with gadgets, deal with surprises, make more plans, and in the end, some characters are killed or punished, and one or two get off, because they plan better than everyone else, or maybe just have incredibly good luck that they turn into better plans. To change up the formula just a bit, Heist adds some noirish elements, such that the men have murky motives and limited vision, the femme is mostly fatale, and, as Mamet has said, the plot involves both violence and irony. You just can’t plan for everything, much as you think you can.
The last big job involves a whole lot of Swiss gold being shipped from an airport, and so there is some amount of security — technology and armed guards — to manage. Together, Joe, Bobby, and Pinky are a well-oiled machine, and the addition of Jimmy, no surprise, causes tension: the pros think he’s a “fucking cowboy.” He swaggers, he slouches, he mouths off. And then he spoils one of their early recon excursions, causing Joe to be spotted by a cop: “Now I got my face on a cereal box,” he grumps. When Sam promises, “I’m gonna be as quiet as an ant pissing on cotton,” Joe only snarls, “I want you as quiet as an ant not even thinking about pissing on cotton.” Colorful.
As this bit of banter demonstrates, Heist revisits Mamet’s usual thematic ground — the ways that men behave with one another, their aggressions and apprehensions, their unself-conscious brutality and hyperconscious posing. The guys Mamet makes are all salesmen in some way, whether they’re gamblers or thieves or actual executives. They’re selling some idea of themselves, to one another, yes, but also to themselves. That their slick maneuvers and manly contests most often take verbal forms is what makes Mamet so Mamet. It’s a good thing, but it is a limited thing.
And still, there’s the girl. Always an issue in Mamet, she’s dishonest or naive, she’s selfish or less sure of herself than she needs to be. Fran is all of these things at various points in Heist, as well as a prize the men think they’re playing for, even as, at the same time, the money is the most important prize, the one they will not walk away from, no matter what. When Bergman asks Jimmy, “As rational men, don’t we have to distrust her?”, snarky little nephew is sure enough of his dick size that he agrees to test her “sincerity,” but only because she’s a means to the end. Joe knows she’s good on her feet and he’s proud: “She could talk her way out of a sunburn.” But she’s up against a battalion of guys. Is Jimmy as dumb as he looks? Is Joe as in love as he looks? And is Bobby really as tight with all these untrustworthy white folks as he looks?
Heist revisits a lot of old turf, but brings the welcome dimension of Hackman, Lindo, and Jay, all supple, magnetic performers, experts at seeming ordinary. You don’t see them act. Instead, each seems to inhabit a movie’s space and time like an old but still stylish suit; it looks really good, tailored and precise, but worn and comfortable. And so these guys push past the flat, emotionless line deliveries that usually characterize Mamet’s direction. His language, severe and spare, actually sounds quite human coming from their mouths.