[Editor’s note: Economic Measures is a new, regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.]
By Michael Pattison
As he drives to LAX to catch a one-way ticket to finer climes, professional thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) makes one last call to his fence and friend Nate (Jon Voight). All is as scheduled. The plane is in the air, Neil is on time, there are to be no hiccups. Nate tells Neil that he is home free. “Home free,” Neil repeats to girlfriend Eady (Amy Brenneman), who sits next to him in the car, all smiles and optimism. But something else Nate said continues to nag. An elusive traitor has been tracked down, checked in under a different name at a nearby hotel. Neil told Nate he no longer cares about said traitor, but from the moment he ends the conversation it’s clear that he does.
What follows is one of the many indelible moments in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). McCauley enters a tunnel, whose lightning-white lights engulf the car. Illuminated in a sublime sheen of sustained mercury flash, Eady and McCauley share a momentary, wordless paradise. We see them in profile, against a sea blue that is not, sadly for them, a blue sea. Though Elliot Goldenthal’s becalming string score seems to prolong the moment, the light subsides as quickly as it had begun. Returning to reality, McCauley begins to mull. He enters that zone, of having to weigh up his options and make a split-second decision. The dilemma, we know, is whether or not to go after his betrayer – to continue on course for the airport or to make the detour and settle a score.
De Niro’s face straightens, intensifies. Just as his character’s driving becomes an involuntary mechanism, the actor channels energy and focus through his eyes and facial muscles. Stiffening up causes him to blink more than usual. Eady looks across at him. Feeling her gaze, McCauley adjusts his fingers that grip the steering wheel – to relax, to loosen up, to battle a nervous energy he’d rather not have. And De Niro twists his face. Is he about to cry or about to laugh? It’s difficult to say, but it recalls a similar register seen in The Deer Hunter (1978), when his character Michael Vronsky is forced to play Russian Roulette at gunpoint.
In that instance, an unimaginably distressing situation becomes so silly, so absurd (it’s a game after all) that tears and laughter become the dual face of anger, terror and everything in between. The dual face, because the two emotions co-habit the same instant rather than preclude one another. Indeed, that’s the absurdity of it. But in Heat, McCauley’s profession denies emotion. Throughout, he repeats the code he and fellow thieves must live by, that if you feel the heat at any moment, you have to make the decision to walk away in thirty seconds flat. “That’s the discipline,” he boasts to Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), the cop who’s hot on his tail.
Discipline indeed: just as sentiment begins to take over him, McCauley seems to fight against it. De Niro contorts his mouth, licks, stretches and pouts away whatever complex simmers beneath. His knuckles re-tighten and his eyes lock once again into a zone of decisive action. In these small, combined gestures, we’re witnessing McCauley’s future bliss fall away from him. True to his word, he takes thirty seconds of narrative-time to make his decision, knowing fine well that he’ll live or die by it. And there’s something terribly accepting about his choice. Prohibiting emotion, he resigns himself to a fate more fitting than the quiet getaway he has temporarily allowed himself to humour – a resignation that might be, of course, just as romantic.
It’s less do-or-die than do-and-die. Because as McCauley told Hanna over coffee earlier in the film, “I do what I do best: take scores.” That a future with Eady is less easy to imagine than his next heist reveals the extent to which McCauley’s arc was doomed all along.