The Heist Film, Masculinity, and Ocean's 8

"Why do you want to do this?" "Because it's what I'm good at."

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The heist film is a genre as old as cinema itself. Dating back to as early as 1903 with "The Great Train Robbery" it's easy to see that the genre has roots that are almost deep as the medium. Since childhood, I have found the heist film to be one of the most accessible, watchable, and consistently entertaining genres as a whole. Watching a group of, usually, charming rogues attempt elaborate and often times insane heists is a prospect that is immediately exciting and enjoyable in. Whether it's the shootout in "Heat", the CIA heist in "Mission Impossible", or breaking into the Bellagio vault in "Ocean's 11" a well-crafted heist can be the end all be all in terms of high-quality entertainment. But recently as I was revisiting some of the genres most prolific and best films I noticed a very odd trend that kept cropping up in all these movies. The women are often times relegated to the back seat and in the worst cases used as props for those doing the heist to seek inspiration from.

The heist film has always been rooted in masculinity one way or another and this dates back to the early 1900's and continues to this day. The motivation and often times characters in heist films are meant to come across as very male. Whether it's the more carefree, entertaining heist films like "Logan Lucky" in which Channing Tatum decides to plan a heist so he can provide for his daughter and family after losing his job. Or the films in the genre that have a little more on their minds like "Point Break" which is a case study in toxic masculinity and how it pushes men to do more and more unreasonable things in efforts to prove dominance to other men.

The genre's most famous franchise, "Mission Impossible" is also a prime example of how masculine or male concepts become a driving force for the main character, at least in the first few installments. While the first two films don't include women characters in a large way outside of love interests, much of the third film revolves around Ethan and him efforts to serve as protector to his wife. The threats leveled against Hunt by the film's villain played perfectly by the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, are directed at Hunt's wife instead of Hunt himself. It's not just his wife however, at the beginning of the film a mysterious woman significant to Hunt's past is killed off and her death serves as fuel for Hunt's hunt for the film's villain and McGuffin. Even in a film about government spies attempting to complete insane heist-like missions there is still room for these masculine flourishes that have dominated the genre since it's inception (I will say that the franchise has taken great leaps in terms of women characters especially with Ilsa Faust from "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation" which might be my favorite "Mission Impossible" movie).

The same is still true for a film as long and complex as "Heat", where every character on both sides of the law is given their own depth, motivation, wants, and needs the women are a complete afterthought. De Niro's character's muse in the film is less of a character and more of a prop throughout the film. Whether it's her serving as his motivation to do the last, giant heist before he leaves with her forever or her becoming a reminder of his golden rule that he can't get too attached to anything. This is also true of Pacino's character's wife, the audience barely see or get to understand her other than when she cheats on Pacino and causes him to have a quasi-meltdown. The same goes for Portman's character who is going through some truly terrible things during the runtime of the movie, but we only see these events as they relate to Pacino's character towards the end of the film (the bathroom scene still gets me every time though). I still love "Heat" (one of my all-time favorites) but looking at the way women are used as props and/or motivation for the main characters it's easy to see that there is much room for improvement in terms of representation and characterization.


This is where the new Ocean's film, "Ocean's 8", comes into play. If the film is able to eschew some of the masculine sentiments present in its forbearers it may be better for it. Let's discuss Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's 11" and George Clooney's character, Danny Ocean (brother to Sandra Bollock's character in "Ocean's 8), motivation in regards to his heist. At the beginning of the film, he says it's about some sort of revenge/fulfillment for 4 years of his life being taken from him by the American judicial system. As the film progresses we find out that Benedict, the man who owns the place the group seeks to rob, is sleeping with Danny's ex-wife Tess, played by Julia Roberts. This is where the film begins to show some its true masculine underpinnings, Danny in some ways feels emasculated and/or threatened by Benedict's wooing of his EX-wife and that drives him to target Benedict specifically. But the most important part of this situation is that Tess is very clear that she wants nothing to do with Danny.

After all, he lied and stole under her nose and ended up being sent to prison, leaving her alone and husband-less. Yet she seems to have thrived and made a career for herself without any of Danny's help. Yet, he casually (and stylishly) roles back into her life and tells her how wrong she is with the choices she made. If you actually think about this part of the film it just doesn't click. We don't see Benedict be an asshole or a terrible person to Tess to motivate us to root for her to leave him, the scene where Danny records Benedict saying that he would give up Tess feels too planned and perfect to inspire change in a person like Tess. All we have is that Danny is the most charming person on the planet earth. While this is effective and we do root for Danny, it isn't foolproof if the evidence above is any indication. She shouldn't be relegated to agreeing with Danny and seeing that he was just right all along. During most of the film she is fiery and knows exactly what she's doing, but completely changes at the end out of nowhere.


"Ocean's 8" on the other hand is a totally different story when it comes to motivation. While I'm dissecting lines from the trailer and have yet to see the full film, Sandra Bullock simply explains she's doing this, "Because it's what I'm good at." This one line of dialogue tells you that this new Ocean's film is not just a re-skin of the remake. It's going to be something wholly unique in terms of characters and not just how they interact with gender but how they interact with the concept and idea of the heist itself. This isn't breaking into some super duper secure vault like we've seen a million times before. Their plan feels defter and more special than things we've seen previously in the genre.

Yes, I know that most of these films aren't supposed to be analyzed this in-depth and not every movie is trying to make a statement about gender roles and interactions. I'm also not saying these films are bad or have major issues because of what I pointed out, in fact, most of the films I mentioned rank among my most loved and watched films of all time. But this is where "Ocean's 8" can truly separate itself from the rest of the genre. It is already in a position to be a huge film for representation but it can also push the genre forward in terms of content if done correctly. Due to the nature of its story and characters, it can be something special and stand completely separate from the other Goliaths of the genre. In the same way "Wonder Woman" was able to reshape the superhero genre in one fell swoop, "Ocean's 8" is similarly poised to do be an incredibly exciting and interesting cultural shift. Hopefully, "Ocean's 8' is able to redefine what feminine means in the heist film. "Ocean's 8" is in theaters June 8, 2018.