David Mamet's thieves, con men and all-around nogoodniks use language as a weapon and love the way well-aimed words can create a zone of menace. Virtuoso talkers, they specialize in the pause that's loaded with anxiety, the interruption that feels like aggression and the rant that's delivered for the pure pleasure of ranting. Heist, the recently released Mamet film, shows that he's still the master of the artificial patois that moviegoers like to imagine is spoken in the underworld. But Heist also demonstrates that Mamet has never quite figured out what to do with this talent he has so exuberantly developed.
A venerable caper story about an old thief (Gene Hackman) trying to pull off one more big score before retiring, Heist turns out to be an elaborate and eventually tiring game of bluff and counter-bluff. All the characters are crooks, divided into the really bad and the not-quite-so-bad. Heist leaves little behind but emptiness and a nagging feeling that something clever and vicious has just happened, even if no one understood it at the time or can remember it after the lights go up. (Through no fault of Mamet's, some scenes have acquired freshly creepy overtones: Since Sept. 11, watching criminals slip through airport security in stolen uniforms has lost its former charm.)
But whatever you think of Heist, Mamet holds a unique place in American entertainment. The author of compelling and unforgettable plays (American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross), he's been a major figure in the theatre for a quarter of a century. During much of that time he's also flourished in the movies, as the writer of successful scripts (The Verdict, The Untouchables) and the writer-director of a stream of films that express his angry, idiosyncratic and vaguely paranoid view of the world, from House of Games in 1987 through The Spanish Prisoner in 1997 to State and Main last year and now Heist.
On even his worst days, you have to admire his nerve, commitment and energy. No matter how outlandish his ideas, he doesn't hesitate to spend large sums of other people's money exploring them. No one will ever know how the plot actually works in The Spanish Prisoner, not even Mamet, but he never lets that problem stop him. Also, the story contains neither a prisoner nor a Spaniard, and an hour after you see it you can't quite explain the title -- but that, too, is pure Mamet. If he fails, he always has four other projects underway. He trusts his talent to keep his career alive. In one way, he's like Woody Allen: He never stops.
The intimidating, intensely verbal characters in his work belong to a major branch of dramatic literature, the one we could call the Theatre of Menace. Mamet absorbed it from Harold Pinter, who picked up major elements of it from Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco; Quentin Tarantino has become the chief inheritor in the generation after Mamet. In this style, a terrible but unspoken threat always lurks just beneath the surface, and dread is everyone's constant companion. When it doesn't work it just seems ponderous. When it works it puts a mysteriously chilling subtext beneath every mundane word of dialogue.
Mamet can sustain, better than almost anyone, the long Beckett-influenced speech that hypnotizes an audience. That talent blossomed in 1974: At the age of 27, he wrote wonderfully comic and obscene arias about sexual conquest for Bernie, the hero's friend in his play Sexual Perversity in Chicago; those soliloquies made the reputation of Jim Belushi, who played Bernie both onstage and in the movie, About Last Night ... For Ricky, one of the desperate and degraded men who sell Florida real estate in Glengarry Glen Ross, Mamet wrote speeches that Al Pacino, in the movie version, turned into raging, hate-filled poetry.
Mamet characters habitually double-cross each other, and never more than in Heist, which moves relentlessly from betrayal to betrayal, totally confusing the audience. In The Spanish Prisoner, Steve Martin's character says his father taught him to assume that in any deal the other guy plans to screw you; it's usually true, and if it's not then you're in for a pleasant surprise. In Mamet's world, everyone is corrupt, or corruptible. This is a con man's approach to human character: It's as if he had just heard about Original Sin and wanted desperately to spread the word. In House of Games, a psychiatrist played by Lindsay Crouse loses her fortune and her heart to a professional grifter (Joe Mantegna). We accept her as an angry victim, until the closing shot reveals that she, too, has turned crooked, if she wasn't always.
Critics have often said that Bernard Shaw's great flaw was his authorial voice. It was so rich, dense and familiar that it turned all his characters into versions of himself. In Saint Joan, the heroine's ecclesiastical tormentors sound like Shaw, but so does Joan herself. In the same way, it's a rare Mamet character who doesn't make Mamet-like sounds. This works better for some than others and rarely works for women. In Heist, Rebecca Pidgeon makes a likeable girlfriend for the Hackman character, but her lines sound as if they were written for someone else -- possibly for her husband the director.
Mamet's formalized and synthetic style sometimes undermines the point he's trying to make. At least on this occasion, the language makes his characters predictable and far less interesting than those in House of Games or The Spanish Prisoner. His scripts can be simultaneously mean and brilliant, but sometimes Heist is just mean. After a gunfight, the vile crime boss Bergman (Danny DeVito) lies dying, and Joe (Gene Hackman) points a gun at him. Bergman: "Don't you want to hear my last words?" Joe: "I just did." Joe then blows him away, in cold blood.
That's altogether wrong for the Hackman character. He's a crook, but we've been sold the idea that he's more decent than DeVito's character. The line works only as wittier-than-thou wordplay. It unfortunately reminds us that the movie, like Mamet himself, cares more about the words than about the characters who speak them.