Barbecues and ballgames: Heat

28 December 2013

Some thoughts on the ending of Michael Mann's 'Heat' (1995)...

Warning: the following article contains spoilers

When at the end of Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) LA cop Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) gets his man, bank robber Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), by shooting him on the periphery of an airport runway, a shared irony emerges between the pair. Fatally wounded by his pursuer, McCauley remarks, “Told you I’m never going back” – referring to prison – to which Hanna replies, with something resembling exhaustion or even defeat: “Yeah...”

On the face of it, Mann’s crime epic appears to have ended with the restoration of the moral equilibrium so demanded by the cops and robbers genre, even if it affords us a continued emotional investment in De Niro’s ruthless professional thief. But as Hanna takes McCauley’s extended hand in a moment of belated understanding, he looks to the left of the screen, a framing choice that subtly suggests the resolution is more complicated than it first appears.

Following western literary traditions, for which our eyes read a page (and narrative) from left to right, the dominant (i.e., western) cinema’s idea of narrative progression subscribes likewise to the idea of a left-to-right development, a gesture that can be made by the camera itself, as in a rightward pan, or by an actor’s movement through the frame. In contrast to this, however, Pacino’s Hanna looks off-left, which might suggest he now faces not so much a new beginning as a return to nagging realities, which have loomed increasingly large throughout the film. Taken in this light, Hanna’s minimal, one-word response to McCauley’s final words contains more than a hint of regret and even, perhaps, of envy: having dedicated himself to catch a thief, and having now caught him, Hanna is left with nothing but those loose familial threads that he has neglected for too long.

This is the only end either character could have imagined. Their previous meeting, in a roadside diner, is tinged with mutual respect and concludes with both finding common ground despite apparent differences. Ineluctably bound to one another like two sides of a coin, Hanna and McCauley are part of a long line of Mann protagonists torn between the coded discipline of their chosen profession and the allure of an ordinary life – a tension negotiated by everyone from James Caan’s Frank in Thief (1981) to Johnny Depp’s Dillinger in Public Enemies (2009) and even extending into Dustin Hoffman’s Chester Bernstein in Luck, the television series Mann executive produced and whose pilot he also directed, by way of Russell Crowe’s Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider (1999) and Tom Cruise’s determined hitman Vincent in Collateral (2004).

For McCauley, a regular-type life amounts to “barbeques and ballgames”. But these projected realities elude Hanna, too: he is quick to demystify his own life by telling McCauley that he is passing his wife on the downslope of a third marriage, unable to provide his teenage stepdaughter the stability and love she obviously requires. In the diner meeting, Hanna readily admits his problems stem from spending all his time chasing guys like McCauley around the block – a figurative image that in itself suggests perpetuity. “I do what I do best,” McCauley says: “I take scores. You do what you do best: try to stop guys like me.” “I don’t know how to do something else,” Hanna says. “Neither do I,” McCauley replies. Hanna again: “I don’t much want to, either.” McCauley again: “Neither do I.” They share a smirk; even if he had the means to do so, neither man would even want to do something different. Both men’s professions lend purpose to an otherwise vacant existence.

Los Angeles plays itself, then. As seen in Heat, American cinema’s chief metropolis is the absurd arena in which inhabitants play Cops and Robbers (or Barbeques and Ballgames) for the thrill of the game itself. When one side of that equation is taken out, however, as McCauley is under the lights of a landing airplane, the other is left contemplating an empty future. Professional to a fault, Hanna has done what he does best, only to find his reward is disappointment. In contrast to McCauley, who has met an end more or less of his own choice (we know his is a doomed fate from that moment of epiphany when he opts to avenge a pal’s betrayal over an unlikely future with girlfriend Eady, played by Amy Brenneman), Hanna is revealed as the film’s real tragic hero, for whom the pursuit has more promise and purpose than its end.

Accompanied by Moby’s epic “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters”, Hanna is framed in the final shot of the film from behind, with decisions to make and problems to face. Mann suspends him in the pose. Hanna seems unwilling to let go of McCauley’s hand.

See also: Economic Measures 1: Robert De Niro in Heat