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The Barrel

by Roman Arbisi 2 months ago in movie
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An analysis of Michael Mann's 1995 masterpiece, HEAT, and how we can use it to understand his iconic, "barrel shot".

When you stare down the barrel of a gun in a Michael Mann movie, the protagonist is often replaced with the thought of what comes next. What is on the other end of pulling the trigger?

The worlds that Mann creates blurs the lines of its reality, or the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist. A choice that allows the viewer to derive a broader semblance of meaning in relation to the story. His protagonists are complicated. They are morally entangled in the fabric of their jobs, and the ethics or codes that drive them to abide by that self-motivated culture. The minutiae of Manhunter, and the watchful eye of the digital age in Blackhat, are gripping juxtapositions of a filmmaker who has evolved as the times have. The clicking, mechanical gears of a safe, and the buzzing hardware that connects us to our screens bookend Mann’s career. A career full of highs, with a low or two that would be the highest remark in most other filmographies. In the middle of it all is Heat. A 1995 L.A. crime masterpiece with a pre-sequel novel (Heat 2) written by Mann and Meg Gardiner ready to hit the shelves. A novel that all followers of Michael Mann Facts (@MannFacts) have been waiting to get their hands on. Although Heat is informed by ex-cop Chuck Adamson and his pursuit of the real Neil McCauley (played by De Niro), Mann’s ability to blur that line of realism through a fictional lens has always been a trademark. It’s what makes his worlds pulse with life, and his characters believable. It’s why we keep revisiting them, why we won’t stop, and why Heat is the answer to what is on the other end of pulling that trigger.

The legs on Heat have been dancing for the last 27 years. It has been a source of discussion for years thanks to its run on cable television and streaming services. Big action films like Die Hard or Predator are heroes to channel surfers, but Heat falls into this camp although it isn’t really an action film. It has a legendary shootout in the middle, and a chase sequence at the end, but the film is nearly three hours long and fabricated with work-obsessed drama. I attribute our return to Heat because of how real, motivated, and emotional the story of these two men is. It is articulated early on that there is a predestination for Vincent and Neil. They don’t parallel one another; it is rather a head on collision course.

Our first exposure to Neil is his silent, calculated movements. Juxtaposed to that is Vincent’s romantic make out session with Justine. Mann paints respective images of what they want, but he places it in the life of the other. Vincent is missing the time to do the things necessary to do his job, and Neil is missing a personal attachment. Not that Neil needs one, but will grow to have one, and it disrupts his path as Vincent’s attempts to maintain the relationship with Justine will disrupt his. These misplaced emotions found in the opposition creates a firm sense of internal conflict that circles back as we push through the primary storyline. Heat, like all Michael Mann movies, understands how to thread narrative beats and characters together with unavoidably human, primal emotions for them to act on.

After Neil’s crew executes the truck heist with tactical precision, Vincent’s arrival at the scene shows how precise his crew is with piecing the crime together. Mann states how great Neil and Vincent are at their respective jobs in subsequent scenes, and we will see this formula repeated time and time again. Oftentimes, Mann will flip the perspective on its head the further the film goes to disrupt our perception of who has the upper hand in the story. No one has done it better since. Neil will return to his empty home with no furniture and no notable personality. All that is, is the view of the ocean meeting the sky, and it exemplifies the feeling of being alone. As for Vincent, his post-modern home is cluttered with art, appliances, and Justine. They fill the space with attachments, a plethora of them, and this gives Neil the upper hand in the first act. No attachments to walk out on, and no one to return home to. Just do your job when the other guy can’t. That is until Neil discovers an attachment in a crowded restaurant. It's the first scene in the movie where Neil is surrounded by people mingling, laughing, and talking. It is no longer about work, but that human attachment we share with each other in a communal space where Neil and Eady meet. Although Neil is probably being flirtatious to enjoy a long night with Eady, it is the way he cradles her head when he kisses her, or how he wraps a paper towel around a glass of water before he leaves the morning after that signals how much care he has to give. It's the bubbling romance between Neil and Eady that is a romantic contrast to the downhill slope of Vincent and Justine. The potential and promises of opportunity in these empty spaces of Neil’s life live in Eady, and the clutter of Vincent’s, sets the stage for some of the greatest conflict ever put to film.

Code and philosophy are the backbone of Michael Mann movies. The lines that won’t be crossed, the internalized method to the broader madness forces his characters to dial in on the scope of their desires. Vincent doesn’t want his “motherf**king time wasted” so he can juggle the necessities of being a husband for Justine, and the father figure Lauren is missing. Time is of the essence to Vincent when time doesn’t wait for criminals to act. In the following scene, Neil’s code backs up everything we’ve seen of him so far. “Don’t get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” The edit that ties these scenes together is another example of Mann dictating the path towards an inevitable collision. Both of their ideals are expressed on each side of an edit, and this is what keeps us engaged. Everything about Vincent and Neil’s actions before these expressions back it up. The only way to not make it redundant is to take it to the next level, and Mann does this by giving Vincent the upper hand as he transitions to the second act.

Neil and his crew are enjoying a night out together with their family and friends. They laugh, make jokes, glance and touch each other as they enjoy their meal. In a brief moment, Neil observes everything they have that he doesn’t. A kiss. A child. A significant other. Neil gets up from his seat and calls Eady. He expresses that he was thinking about her, and that relationship continues to blossom as Vincent’s continues to spiral into the next edit. Neil and his crew say their goodbyes as they exit the restaurant, and the camera perches from a high angle as it surveys their departure. Only to reveal that Vincent and his guys are doing some recon on Neil. They identify Chris and Michael but have no idea who Neil is. Vincent refers to him as, “the loner”, when he walks in the opposite direction of his friends. The crew, unaware they are being watched, shifts the dynamic of the narrative in favor of Vincent, and then Mann re-introduces Waingro into the story. His existence is the most visceral representation of Neil’s detachment. Unlike Vincent, Waingro has nothing to lose. So, he kills it anyway. In a scene that reflects Neil’s night out with his crew, Vincent is drawn away from Justine and his friends by the murder that Waingro has committed. This draws Vincent and Neil closer to each other as they begin to contradict their codes. Neil can’t walk out because he continues to return to Eady, and Vincent can’t find the time because, “he lives amongst the remains of dead people.”

When Neil and his crew attempt to rob a precious metals depository, a careless officer alerts Neil of the LAPD’s presence, and in a mesmerizing match cut, the tripwire of tension almost goes off. In the heat of the night, Neil fulfills his prophecy and walks away from the job. With Neil aware that he and his guys are being watched, he sets himself up to recon Vincent and the LAPD. Mann flips the coin again and Neil is given the same advantage that Vincent had. It is so impressive how Mann continues to alternate who has a visible advantage over the other. It gives the entirety of the second act a sense of energy most films don’t because it doesn’t favor an individual perspective. It favors both. The script is constantly turning gears to push them to the historic meeting at Kate Mantilini’s restaurant. There have been countless readings, analyses, and essays on “the diner scene”, but few note why it is so significant beyond the first scene shared between two Hollywood legends. In a second act that constantly flips between Vincent and Neil as the pressure mounts, their only attachment in these scenes is each other. There is a lack of Eady and Justine. A lack of a human pulse because their work has taken over their lives. So, in the middle of a diner packed full of life (note how dense the image is behind these guys whenever Mann cuts), Vincent and Neil finally meet face to face. For them, this is the only life they’ve known over the last half-hour of the film, and it applies the physicality that has been absent throughout the act. It’s a philosophical joust with wicked sharp lines of dialogue that’ll have any writer wish they had written it. They take turns expressing what they’ll do if faced with the opportunity to take each other down, and both of them come to a mutual agreement that neither will like it if that is what it comes down to. It is the only life they know, and neither is particularly interested in doing anything else. They share these recurring dreams with one another that embody each other’s arc, or their final destination. Vincent dreams of victims with “8 ball hemorrhages” staring at him. Neil is drowning and feels it is telling him, “He doesn’t have enough time”. They express their vulnerability and most human parts of themselves to one another, and it couldn’t draw them any closer. Their differences are just a reflection of one another, and they have yet to share any moment like this with anyone else. The case could be made that Neil shares with Eady, but he is lying to her the entire time. This is the only scene this far into the movie where either man showcases their vulnerability with honesty. It isn’t with a colleague, a wife, a daughter, or a friend, it is with the enemy, and this meeting evolves into a shootout that is a violent, bloody extension of their dialogue.

The bank heist that develops into a thrilling shootout to end the second act has been studied and aped for the last 27 years. It is one of the greatest action scenes of all-time, but you already knew that. The story has gradually built towards this moment, and in the wake of the diner scene, it makes it that much more intense. As a viewer, we feel that personal connection between Neil and Vincent in every shot. It is something few action movies understand today. When you attribute a face to an idea, an action, that conflict sizzles because it is harnessing the personality of its subjects. The physical exertion is an extension of their code. Their internal conflict becoming external and having to face that in the most dangerous sense is what makes great action. We can’t forget how we got here either. When Neil and his crew are on the cusp of getting away, the LAPD shows up just in time because Waingro tipped them off by leading them to Trejo. When Neil and Vincent move towards one another on the board, Waingro cuts through like a bishop. It is incredible how Mann manifests so much tension and surprise in Waingro. Although his screen time is minimal, he is essentially the conduit that supercharges the narrative to constantly disrupt Neil and Vincent’s respective journeys. It keeps the audience on their toes just as much as it keeps all of the major players in the narrative on theirs.

After the shootout, Neil and Vincent return to their attachments. Justine and Vincent’s relationship seems to have completely fallen apart, and Neil and Eady's relationship gets complicated. Vincent seems to have all but given up, and Neil struggles to maintain that last source of connection in all that he has left. Michael is dead and Chris is feeling the heat, but Eady is untouched by the drama. It is the last source of palpable connection in Neil’s life, and he does his best to hold on to that string. “I know life is short. Whatever time you get is luck.”, he says to Eady under the night sky of LA. This is such a potent line when you consider how his story will end. That line also fills in the blanks for Vincent to keep the two thematically engaged, because on the other side of town, Vincent returns to his hotel room and finds Lauren has attempted suicide. In some of Pacino’s finest work this side of The Godfather Part II, he frantically rushes her to the hospital and finds Justine amidst the chaos. They embrace in a long, warm, loving, tragic embrace, and their story seems to reach a bittersweet conclusion. No matter how hard Vincent tries to be the husband he needs to be for Justine, tragedy will always find them. The violence and long nights at work kept him away from her, but that is what will always keep them coming back to each other. They both supply a need to one another in a subtle manner. Vincent is the husband that Justine is looking for because he is the father that her ex isn’t. Justine’s passion and bursts of life is what keeps Vincent afloat. She is what he will always come home to. At this moment, when Vincent says, “All I have is what I’m going after”, the story seems to come to a close. Neil has been given the greenlight to catch a flight out of L.A., and he is “home free”, as it is expressed in the high contrast tunnel that follows. It is the last free moment of Neil’s life. Eady is in the passenger seat, the music swells, and all seems right until it doesn’t. The hazy night sky intrudes, and Neil seeks revenge on Waingro for wronging him. It is one of the last decisions Neil will make, and he doesn’t know it yet.

Neil infiltrates the hotel in a manner that reflects the first scene of the film. He breezes past people like a ghost. As if he had been working that job for years. He blends in and successfully executes Waingro with Vincent on his way to stop him. In a dazzling shot, Vincent catches Neil amidst a flurry of people running from the hotel and chases him down. It seems as if Mann forced Neil and Vincent to physically share the same space when they are amongst other people. To use the extras as an opportunity to express that human attachment they yearn for. This time around, the extras are used as the last bit of separation between each other before they run across the tarmac of the Los Angeles Airport. The planes lifting off and landing underscores the entire sequence to service what Neil is missing now that he’s missed his opportunity. Their breathing is short, and their eyes dart around the dark in search of an advantage on a level battlefield. Vincent stalks Neil, and he shoots him in the chest.

In a breathtaking conclusion, Neil’s freedom is just out of reach, and Vincent approaches him. Neil reaches out to Vincent, and Vincent takes his hand. That final feeling is a bloody grasp in the hands of the only life he knew. Vincent, with tear-filled eyes and a solemn look on his face, looks to the distance as the only life he understands passes into a memory. To live on in his dreams, his nightmares, his life. The ending to Heat boils with tragedy for both men. Neil will never go back to the confines of prison, but he’ll never know what living a simple life would have been like with his freedom soaring through the clouds above. Vincent will return home to Justine, Lauren, and various attachments, but no one will understand him as Neil did. There is a feeling of loneliness and isolation in the ending that no other scene between the two had. That steady breath of conflict finds a conclusion amidst the void of an airport tarmac where the only feeling left is remembering the life that was before the trigger was pulled.

Michael Mann’s answer to what is on the other end of pulling the trigger is freedom for the one in front of the gun. They live forever while the protagonist has to continue moving forward in an unchanged world. In Manhunter, Will Graham shoots Dollarhyde and returns to his family, but the magnitude of his work overshadows the open waters and sandy beaches. In Blackhat, Nick Hathaway shoots Sadak and continues to run with Lien as they phase in and out of screens that monitor them. In Collateral, Max unloads a clip into Vincent and he dies unnoticed on the train, but the innocent taxi driver with aspirations has murder on his mind. Heat does a wonderful job of being the best example of this duality that exists as the backbone of his work. He finds interesting ways to have two subjects represent a distinguishable side to the journey by establishing what each man is looking for in their counterpart. In some capacity, each of these relationships can be figured down to the freedom that they are searching for from within work-based containment. Mann releases his antagonists by ushering them towards their rightful end, but at the cost of eliminating a part of the protagonist that found some of themself in their instigator. In a story sense, the right guys won, but how much of themselves did they lose after eliminating all that they had?


About the author

Roman Arbisi

I'm an aspiring writer of film. Whether that be critique, analysis, or screenwriting, film is my passion. In hopes that it'll help everything around me make more sense.

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