Tag Archives: Michael Pattison

Economic Measures #6 | Sonny Chiba in The Street Fighter (1974)

Economic Measures is a regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.

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By Michael Pattison

In the run-up to the climactic duel of The Street Fighter (1974), the film’s protagonist Tsiguri (Sonny Chiba) boards an oil tanker, on which its owner, oil heiress Sarai (Yutaka Nakajima), is being held hostage by the mafia cohorts who want to steal her fortune. Awaiting Tsiguri are gun-toting thugs, casual hired hands and two siblings who had earlier refused to pay our protagonist after the latter had completed a dangerous job for them. This finale is a masterpiece of meaningful action, in which multiple story threads meet in one final showdown. Driving it, as he has done the film, is Chiba, a pulsating, intense figure whose anger seeps through at every turn.

A major part of what makes The Street Fighter a more sophisticated film than its contemporaries is its high production values. Shot on location in Hong Kong and Japan by cinematographer Kenji Tsukagoshi, it boasts a dazzling display of colours and compositional vivacity – in the ultra-widescreen 2.35:1 format – that its otherwise ordinary plot would customarily preclude.

Another key contributor to The Street Fighter‘s success is of course Chiba himself. In contrast to Bruce Lee, the man is vicious from the outset, and though he is revealed to have a code, it is largely governed by financial need. Lee’s appeal lay in the arrogance with which he began a conversation knowing he had his fists of fury to fall back on when the other guy inevitably turned nasty. For Chiba’s character, fighting is the only viable means of communication.

Tsiguri’s father, we learn via flashback, was killed for being a spy, and the resulting legacy is one of distrust, resentment and a self-made tough-guy status: nothing upsets Tsiguri more than an unfulfilled promise, which is why he bears the burden physically as well as emotionally when he makes one to someone else. Indeed, physical force is an emotional outlet in itself for Chiba. To watch him in just about any scene in The Street Fighter is to witness someone channelling a deep, conflicted spiritualism into a lethal weapon. If the reason we continue to like Bruce Lee is his speedy chic – aided by the mysticism that follows a premature death (he’s a kind of Bob Marley of martial arts) – then Chiba’s charms are rooted in a thuggish morality, whereby the pursuit of monetary sustenance fuels his capacity to fight, and thus survive. Never underestimate a guy whose reason to fight is economic.

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These qualities are encapsulated in the scene aboard the oil tanker at the end of the film, as Tsiguri makes his way from the deck to the deeper corridors and engine room below, downing any man (or woman) who dares to stop him. Tsiguri’s ferocity alone seems to compel him onward, like a motor whose sound drowns out all other human attributes. To think of an equivalent performance recently – in which the gruelling element of a fistfight becomes a kind of the structuring principle – we might look to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s exhilarating one-man attack on the compound in John Hyams’ Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009). Matching the kind of formal audacity that has included an x-ray image of a skull being smashed earlier in the film, Chiba here personifies someone who really is going to go all the way. While knuckles and feet are his preferred weapons of choice, he doesn’t think twice about throwing a knife into the arm of a woman who points a gun at him, and he is unforgiving enough to throw a man to his death even after he has incapacitated him.

Beginning this 4½-minute sequence of fights by stealthily offing a guard and carrying him overboard, Chiba becomes increasingly maniacal in look and angular in movement. Indeed, so heavy is the body count to come, and so confined are the spaces in which he must run this gauntlet, that somewhere along the way, Chiba’s more balletic manoeuvres become less elegant. And that deep, cacophonous hiss-cum-growl that he summons in his throat between each attack becomes harsher, more audible. In a word, more alien: here, fisticuffs are a thing of consequence, something by and through which man is both spiritually and physically transformed. Resembling a possessed demon by the time he plunges his fatal fist into a female foe (tactfully obscured by an upturned settee), Chiba’s quest to save Sarai has changed him: even if he does down everyone in his path, we get the sense from his eyes that he’ll never quite recover from it, and that a relationship with Sarai would be out of the question.

Irredeemably intense, this odds-against, self-destructive plummet into violence prefigures that other antiheroic climax of the 1970s – that of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Likewise, when his fight is over, Chiba’s fate is open to ambiguity.

Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.

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Economic Measures #5 | Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty (2013)

Economic Measures is a regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.

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By Michael Pattison

Paulo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, in cinemas now, is a mysterious beast of thematic ambition, formal precision and tonal complexity. Seeing it twice recently, I wondered if it might be the first film since There Will Be Blood (2007) or The Master (2012) to feel of a different period altogether. Whether that period’s in the past or in the future is difficult to say. To be sure, the Italian maverick’s latest – a flawed masterpiece that boasts the conviction of its own capacity to fail – seems to be unfathomably old-fashioned at the same time as being unfashionably ahead of its time.

Even as it drifts off in its third act, its energy zapped by a curious dream sequence (or is it?) involving big-titted dames paying exorbitant amounts for their latest botox injections, the film reeks of purpose and energy and old-school arthouse class. In discussing its multitude of problems, I’ve fallen in love with it: it satisfies my present need for excitement, for a youthful spirit, for a more lyrical and instinctive appreciation of things, for doing something when everything else about a situation (notably budget and common sense) seem to deny it. To quote a member of a message board I used to moderate, “I’d rather see an interesting failure than a dull success.”

Similar to that curious and temporary inability as an adolescent to recall a crush’s face, I was aware going into my second viewing of The Great Beauty that it has a prologue, and yet had forgotten exactly how it felt, what it looked like and what happened in it. As became immediately clear again, it’s a dizzying yet logical succession of wonderfully choreographed pans and tracks, their movement and sweep lending intrigue to a three-fold incident in which a female choir, a group of tourists and an amateur photographer are drawn together when the latter falls down dead.

I still don’t know its significance (“the tourists are the best thing about Rome”?), but the Hitchcock-like scream that concludes this sequence, ushering in a rooftop party scene to the tune of ‘Far L’Amore’ by Bob Sinclar and Raffaela Carrà, brought an immediate and sustained bout of shivers. The subsequent sequence, a superlatively edited and infectiously energetic passage in which Felliniesque grotesques drink and dance the night away, provides us with the most hedonistically pleasurable few moments in film this year.

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Down to it, then. Toni Servillo, already one of my favourite working actors, anchors this film with airs that are as elusive as his face is memorable. The man is 54, and without looking older than his years, he exudes an experience and even weariness that transcend them. Such experience comes to haunt the narrative just as much as it brings that opening party to life. In a key scene in which he berates a female writer for pretensions of superiority, Servillo’s protagonist betrays his own weaknesses: lazy, fond of one too many drinks, perhaps even beyond repair, and – tragically – aware of such vices. At several points, this host with the most has his otherwise assured façade shattered by the presence of an aloof neighbour to whom he aspires like a pathetic protégé.

Is there anyone who nails silencio e sentimento with such effortless charm, gravitas and vulnerability as Servillo? Who else can command the screen by doing so little as lying inert in a hammock? During both viewings of his latest collaboration with Sorrentino, I have longed for those scenes in which he gave Gomorrah (2008) much-needed purpose, and have also lamented the lack of theatrical distribution for It Was the Son (2012), in which he complemented the film’s caricature qualities by channelling the higher melodrama of a Pietro Germi film.

Like all the best film entrances (Welles’ in Kane, Kinski’s in Aguirre, the Marx Brothers’ in Duck Soup), Servillo’s in The Great Beauty is delayed. The party scene announces itself and introduces several characters in delirious succession, as if the camera is circling the vicinity looking to recruit a protagonist who can command it. Exhilaratingly – mirroring the structure of the Sinclar and Carrà dance mix that churns beneath – the scene seems to end at several points, or at least ventures into a quieter part of the shindig to eavesdrop on more private moments. Just when you think the scene has ended, it goes back to the heart of the party. Like some hideous homage to Kathy Selden, a woman shoots up from a giant cake and shouts “Happy Birthday, Jep!”

Cut to Servillo, for the first time, who shimmies 180 degrees to break the fourth wall, cigarette in mouth and a smile etched upon his wondrously craggy face. He is Jep Gamdardella. The gesture is aided by everything else that Sorrentino throws at us, of course, but Servillo, in this simple, declarative introduction, shows us that the film is his from here on out. That it’ll be his even when other characters threaten to steal it from him, when its tone shifts from exuberant to melancholic and back again, even when its director intrudes upon proceedings by viewing them from an upside-down angle. When the scene concludes with a collective dance-off between the genders, note Servillo’s ability to be in sync with a crowd and stand out from it in the same moment. And the involuntary movement merely of his fingers while dancing says more than Mastroianni ever did.

Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.

Economic Measures #4 | Emer McCourt and Robert Carlyle in Riff-Raff (1991)

[Editor’s note: Economic Measures is a regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.]

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By Michael Pattison

An hour into Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff (1990), itinerant worker Stevie (Robert Carlyle) returns from his day’s graft to find girlfriend Susie (Emer McCourt) has prepared for him a small birthday celebration. Entering the living room of the flat in which they squat, Stevie sees Susie standing in wait, party hat on, with a small candle-lit cake in one hand and a bottle of rosé in the other. Immediately overcome with emotion, he turns away and walks out of the room. Susie follows him: “I’m sorry, I never meant to upset you. What is it?” Stevie replies, without looking at her: “Nobody’s ever done that before.”

Stevie doesn’t look at her because he’s too embarrassed by joy – even by the small things in life that offer it. Stevie cowers from such emotion, unsure of how to communicate it, let alone respond to it. His slight frame remains in the hallway, and he looks down at his feet. Though he can neither muster the courage to return his girlfriend’s searching gaze nor find the words to match the moment, he yearns for Susie’s physical presence, and pulls her to him for a hug. For him, this is a new experience, and its inherent warmth simultaneously unsettles and reassures him.

Not much has been given to us in terms of Stevie’s backstory. We know that he has recently been released from prison and that he has travelled to London from his native Glasgow in search of work, and that he is presently employed as a casual labourer on a construction site. Like all of the film’s performances, Carlyle’s isn’t expressionistic or actorly. Filmed by Loach and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd in medium and long shots, he is framed within surroundings by which he is forever conditioned and in which he may interact with others to form an instinctive solidarity against the ugly implications of said surroundings. Here, with heartbreaking economy, Carlyle demonstrates what it means to be the object of someone’s unconditional love at a time when you’re financially broke.

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Here is a person whose brave face amidst daily toil is one that has been hardened by betrayal and mistrust. Abandoned, imprisoned, unemployed and unloved, Stevie seems humbled and humiliated by Susie’s generosity. Indeed, in a world where success and happiness are both measured in abstract terms—and in which the prevalent presumption is that men provide and women receive—the alienation experienced by someone like Stevie is both social and domestic. It takes great courage not to fold under such multifarious pressures. Stevie knows in this very same instant that an act of kindness from someone who loves him is a beautiful thing to be cherished. A similar scene occurs in Loach’s Raining Stones (1993), when the jobseeking Tommy (Ricky Tomlinson) reluctantly accepts some cash handed to him from his shop-assistant daughter, only to break down after she leaves the room.

Susie, excellently played by McCourt, is also a human in need. In the shot that follows the one in the hallway, note the way she crouches beside Carlyle to allow him enough space to regain his composure, and the tact she demonstrates in looking away from him so that he can wipe the tears from his eyes without feeling too intruded upon. An artistic woman who wishes to be a singer, Susie is creative enough to challenge the poverty in which she and her boyfriend live. Stevie’s birthday card is handmade, and the present Susie has him unwrap is a single pair of flashy polka dot boxer shorts. It’s both a personal and light-hearted gesture.

As Carlyle opens his gift, his hands tremble with adrenaline – is it going to be something so thoughtfully sincere that he’ll break down once more? Anticipating the joke, McCourt’s eyes barely leave him, and her own nerves – how will he react? – cause her to laugh half a second before he does. To witness the pleasure she has brought to his world is itself a pleasure for Susie. To us, such modest attempts at happiness, in the face of an ongoing marginalisation, are small but revolutionary acts. Implying both togetherness and compassion at a time when neither is particularly valued by the official political order, such acts need indeed to be cherished.

Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.

Economic Measures #3 | Neda Amiri in One. Two. One (2011)

[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.]

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By Michael Pattison

The twelfth and antepenultimate scene in Mania Akbari’s One. Two. One (2011) takes place in a telecabin carriage ascending Mount Tochal, just outside Tehran. It begins with Ava (Neda Amiri) recounting to a date (Payam Dehkordi) an amusing incident that occurred days previously. Telling it, she stutters, looks away from her date and talks more quickly and assertively, with fewer breaths, as if to regain control of both the anecdote and herself. All of this happens in an instant. Ava punctuates the end of her anecdote by rolling her eyes, acknowledging its silliness, to settle back from its melodrama and to return the watchful gaze of her date.

After she has finished her story, Ava’s date informs her that she has some lipstick on her teeth. She wipes it off. “Is it gone?” she asks. “Yep,” he replies. She purses her lips and smiles, suspending that fleeting moment in which a woman realises she is the object of a man’s gentle scrutiny, and looks away with something resembling a coy laugh. The hand on which she has propped her head moves in a gesture that is at once unconscious and self-conscious, a defence mechanism against the unflinching attention she is receiving.

Ava’s fingers come across her neck to form a kind of shield. Her chin rests on the back of her hand. A finger dares to twitch – or is it a self-caress? Feeling less open to would-be advances, she moves her entire head back to face the man sitting in intimate proximity across from her, to confront him, test him, return his intensity by eyeing him direct. In what is perhaps an instinctive need to regain poise and power, she spots a stray hair on his bald head, and returns a favour by lifting it and blowing it from her own hand.

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All of this unfolds within a fixed frame and in the space of half of minute. It’s gently, harmoniously, relatably erotic. It captures that nervous energy of a first or second date so well. Here are two people whose interest in one another might primarily be physical but whose connection has a palpable electricity that goes beyond lust – that excitement one feels at the onset of a new companionship. Such excitement is twofold. It is not merely about finding someone new, but also about challenging and renewing oneself – and, here, one’s sense of self, for Ava has, we know, recently recovered from an acid attack by her jealous husband.

In these moments, Amiri embodies the extraordinary courage and trust a woman must sustain in a society whose primary criterion of judgement is aesthetic beauty. When she licks and sucks the lipstick from her teeth, she averts the spotlight in embarrassed acknowledgement that she is being looked at, admired, desired, analysed – in a word, “othered”. She doesn’t dislike it, but experience has taught her caution. She must give little away, must not reciprocate too much. This is flirting, that process by which otherwise innocent gestures become charged with possibilities, in which that fine line between ambiguity and clarity seems both to widen and to disappear. Flirting creates a veil of innocence to retreat behind at the same time as it creates an expanse of new terrain to chart.

Neda Amiri might problematise One. Two. One’s apparent argument against the value placed by society upon physical beauty by being arguably the most beautiful actress alive. This is not her fault. As demonstrated in this and other scenes, however, her skill as a performer transcends the formal limitations of Akbari’s film and occasionally elevates its more mannered and irritating aspects to the stuff of brilliance. Self-conscious, exposed, explorative, fearless, Amiri demands and commands respect simply by embracing that terrifying concept of making a mistake or losing control. It’s no wonder her date is enraptured.

One. Two. One has just been released on DVD in the UK by Second Run. A season of Mania Akbari’s films runs at the BFI Southbank until 28 July. Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.

Economic Measures #2 | A Native American in The New World (2005)

[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.]

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By Michael Pattison

If you’re looking for an ostensibly simple dialogue exchange that also happens to be laced with a quietly devastating symbolism, you might struggle to find one more moving than the one which takes place between Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) towards the end of Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005). The former lovers are briefly reunited when the Native American accompanies her husband, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), on a trip to England. Small talk and heavy silences culminate thusly:

Pocahontas: “Did you find your Indies, John? You shall…”

Smith: “I may have sailed past them.”

Soon after, the film enters its concluding passage, a montage cut to the prelude from Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Rolfe addresses his young son in voice-over, telling him and us that Pocahontas, the boy’s mother, took ill and died shortly before the return voyage to their Jamestown settlement across the Atlantic. Though Rolfe’s narration confirms her death, Pocahontas lives on in the subsequent sequence, in which she is seen playing with her son and dancing joyously in the grounds of their Gravesend estate.

Just as the music is beginning to swell, we are presented with an apparently incongruous image of a Native American. Played by Matthew Yeung and referred to in the end credits as a shaman, this otherwise anonymous character sits on a chair, as if posing on the throne of a European monarch, and directly eyes the camera. In the next shot, he exits the manor by bolting through a doorway and into the courtyard beyond. Confronting us one moment, he retreats in the next. Was he intruding? Is he chased? At any rate, one gesture appears to be contradicted by the other. Running through the door in a seemingly wounded fashion, Yeung’s physical vitality nevertheless plays out in contrast to that other, more celebrated doorway-silhouette, that of John Wayne at the end of The Searchers (1956).

It’s an odd moment. On first inspection it serves no narrative function. Yeung has before now appeared only briefly, on the periphery of the frame as Pocahontas alights a ship and steps for the first time onto English soil. Breaking the fourth wall, his gaze destroys in an instant what has until now been accepted as a seamlessly worked hermetic fiction. Later in the same sequence, we see an image of Pocahontas’ (imagined) grave in a present-day setting. Stitched into an otherwise conventional historical drama, both moments appear as violent ruptures. They force us out of the diegesis and contradict all notions of a harmonious narrative. Indeed, Yeung’s Native American resembles a history museum exhibit, static and lifeless – only in the next image to appear alive again, rejecting and rebelling against his own fate. The period setting is demystified.

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In The New World, history records, tells and observes at the same time as it perceives, distorts and contradicts. As such, it bears during its most powerful passages the markings of an essay film, confident in nothing if not its own self-questioning. As with the violent battles that took place earlier in the film, for instance, Malick treats an otherwise finite act such as Pocahontas’ death as multifarious. It unfolds in a staggered and self-contradicting way. Edited as something that is about to happen, as something that is happening, and as something that seems already to have happened, the everyday is given urgency – and the historical is rendered immediate, even contestable. Yeung’s bounding leap through the doorway of Pocahontas’ manor seems in this way to be an active refusal of some sort – even if it is merely a refusal to be enclosed by Malick’s film.

The past and the present, the perceived and the actual, the old and the new, the historical and the mythic, the natural and the imposed – all of these and more are seen not as opposites, but as co-dependent. Because of this, The New World is able to complicate its own rueful riffs on the trajectory taken by western civilisation upon the discovery of and expansion across the Americas. In this version of the John Smith-Pocahontas fable, the romantic ideal is problematised by scientific endeavour and imperial expansion – currents and phenomena that coincided with the formation of capitalism itself. This is the essence of the heartbreak that pervades that would-be reunion between Pocahontas and Smith. When the latter remarks that he may have sailed past the Indies he had been tasked to find, he seems to be acknowledging something else entirely – a missed opportunity for moral and emotional purity.

Such notions are of course romantic in themselves. The deeper devastation, the one that makes this the powerful anti-romance film that it is, is that Pocahontas doesn’t so much reject Smith as accept that history itself would have always denied them a happiness ever after. Put another way, abstractions such as moral and emotional purity are incompatible with historical particulars. Indeed, Smith left Pocahontas in the first place because he was sent on an expedition as part of wider economic imperatives – the same imperatives, to be precise, by which Pocahontas’ peoples were to be annihilated. And somewhere amidst this terrible realisation, an anonymous Native American retreats, rejects, turns his back in disgust. Capitalism annihilates these gestures too.

Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.

Economic Measures #1 | Robert De Niro in Heat (1995)

[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.]

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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.

Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.

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