Neil steals things, and kills people. The rest is less clear.
He takes care with the safety of his crew. He shows them compassion, and extends this courtesy to Christine, the wife of a man he treats like a surrogate son, or much-younger brother. These people in his orbit repay him with loyalty, and associates outside his command treat him with respect. All of this fits with a criminal who cares about his work and those close to him, his word and his reputation. They fit just as easily with a man who views his life as details relevant to a heist. The camaraderie he fosters aids in executing a bystander in cold blood, and in attempting the same to a wayward accomplice. Over coffee with Vincent, Neil opens up in some way about who he is and how he views the world. And he distracts Vincent in advance of a strategic shift. In shooting a member of his crew, he grants mercy to a fallen comrade, or clemency to a subordinate who failed him. He is an outlaw antihero in the American tradition, stoic and brooding, he is a compartmentalized sociopath. He steals things, and kills people, and you have to wonder whether the rest is a part of it, or separate.
Ambiguity is not indeterminacy—we know the sorts of things Neil does, and the things he does not, even without fully knowing why. Vincent has studied Neil, enough to know how he would approach a situation. And after six-wanted-star warfare in downtown Los Angeles, even Vincent thinks his adversary has skipped town, that he isn’t hanging around tying up loose ends in hotels. Yet Neil hasn’t left, and he dies because he decides to stay. He hasn’t changed, not wholly; he sticks to his cardinal rule in leaving his new love behind when pressed. Whatever principle brought him back from the airport, however, we learn something about the man who returns from the man he returns for. Waingro has proven too extreme for a gang that murders civilians and fires without hesitation at police officers on public streets. No conception of good admits of his presence, and he is unflinching about how far he has fallen. And in Waingro’s final moments, after all he has done, without blinking, he looks at Neil, and he’s scared of what he sees.
Neil insists Waingro acknowledge the sentence he delivers, but he does not smile. He is not there to inflict pain, but to make something certain. Violence is something relevant to the characters, in its specifics, not a script beat outsourced to fight choreographers. We see and feel how heavy the flashlight is in Neil’s hand as he applies it to the body of a police officer. Brutality all the more unsettling for its economy. There is no hint of excess or savagery in Vincent’s use of violence, either. He fires his weapon with care and consideration, and the two times in the film when he kills someone, the camera lingers on his face, before and after.
Yet their shared control does not hold the same meaning. You never get any sense that Neil enjoys violence, even with Waingro. There’s a glimmer in Vincent’s eyes that he might. And the clarity of the centerpiece gunfight, and its geography, renders Vincent’s climactic shot cringe-inducing. It’s not clear that he really takes in the child’s head so close to his target’s, even if he is confident his aim will be true, and if he finds himself excited by the challenge. It should matter that he would not spray gunfire wildly because it suited his purposes, as the robbers do, to lay cover for their retreat. It should matter that he, unlike his adversaries, would care if he did her in. And it should matter, too, that he places her in equal danger.
Considerations outside the direct confrontation between police and criminals are important, we learn throughout. If a character appears in Heat for more than a moment, they are a real part of what takes place. The narrative barely separates the significance of minor characters and the side stories from the purported main event. There are as many scenes where co-leads DeNiro and Pacino talk as there are between a fry cook on probation and the woman helping him to build a future. The cook gets his own story, playing out without any clear connection to the film’s robberies, until a circumstantial convergence with the needs of Neil’s crew. We come to know why he makes the decision to participate in the film’s set piece heist. And he dies, shortly into its disintegration. His presence is not arbitrary, and it is neither an argument for his irrelevance, nor a morality play in miniature. His story, in its detail, suggests the magnitude of the death and destruction the crew have brought forth and set in motion. His girlfriend, who will never know or meet any of the core characters, learns what occurred. She stands at the furthest edge of the crater, and from her distance, and her sorrow, we get a sense of its scale, of the many lives similarly situated but unseen. Nothing about the story of the cook-turned-driver-turned-headline is necessary. He is still there for a reason.
Lillian, who believed in him, leaves the film, but it does not pass her by. The most moving moments in a film famously about cops and robbers all involve women, yet not as victims and bystanders, or hostages between men with guns. They are at the edges of a story, but the film retains interest in theirs. They make decisions about what to make of the men in their life, and how they will act. And they reach different answers. They let their loves go, sensibly or foolishly, they fail to keep them, they reconcile themselves to life amid the danger they inflict. Or they do all at once, Charlene’s hand tracing a signal across a railing, breaking your heart, knowing it would break hers to do anything else. Moments this small only register because we know someone, or know something about her, allowing us to fill in a why, to appreciate the consequences and know she did not choose idly. Codes of loyalty are not supplying the whole answer, either, especially when they’re cross-cutting; a police officer has held over her head, moments before, the ramifications her actions will have for her child. There are no illusions of a free pass; Juliet once stood on a balcony, too. Staging devastation requires detail about what you bring to an end. Heat, by no accident, proves equally adept at giving us violence and showing us wreckage.
In telling its many stories, Heat‘s two leads are most important not for their relative stature, but for the continuity they impart. Even with a wide view, foreground and background must exist in the same frame, and they give us our best perspective on the landscape. Vincent and Neil are the same over coffee as they are with women: Vincent direct, expressing himself candidly, but making it about him, oddly at ease within the “disaster zone” of his life; Neil oblique, reluctant to have anyone keep their eye on him, relying on falsehood. Earlier, we’ve seen Neil kiss Eady slowly and awkwardly, even when we know the physical precision of his violence. They aren’t the same, for him, the one life and the other, and though Neil may be a sociopath, he cannot fake his way through, and we never see him convincingly do so. Vincent is in all things vivid, alive, uncontrolled, in the way he infuriates his wife and the way he retains a charm, to her and to us. This is not an act, either, any more than his sudden exclamations in interrogations and arguments. The ways in which his moods and tones adapt to the moment even allow him to be comic relief, as funny in ripping a television off a wall as he was menacing in advancing toward it.
Vincent, the detective, needs this eye for clues, and the paths forward they might suggest, and Pacino’s frantic tendencies as an actor fit perfectly with a man who focuses on specifics to spin out possible answers. He has to be attentive, as neither side makes many mistakes, and Heat does not rely on anyone losing their wits. Characters do not carry forward with actions simply because the structure of the film requires a payoff at a given point. The second of the film’s three main robberies fizzles out without even a chase, owing to one lapse by the police. The third blows out to incredible proportions, without real warning, because of a botched execution in the early going.
Amid unpredictable structure and uncertain result, there is the danger of the viewer losing their way. Mann approaches this worry by ensuring that the visuals, and the way in which they draw the viewer in, never depend for their comprehension upon the dictates of story or interpretation. We do not have to comprehend the overall significance of what is going on, we need only feel its importance, and its cohesion. The cinematography takes no ideological stance; there are no angles appropriate for heroes and villains. The nature of what occurs, for the purposes of the camera, is the character of a movement, not its moral weight. The handheld camera used for two unsettling moments of aggression, Vincent bursting in on a witness and Neil bursting in on Waingro, does not imply a flip moral equivalence. They link and echo not in what they signify but in what, in both, is frenetic. And the film’s editing and rhythm evolves not in keeping with the characters’ states of mind, but in the growing comfort with the film’s ability to suggest, to move forward with less direct depiction, based upon what it has taught us.
Mann always allows us to find our way back to the images in front of us, and Heat argues that for all our fascination with ways to articulate visual vocabulary in cinema, the point of what we see is to hold our interest. To make someone pay attention is no small accomplishment; after all, it is the goal of ethics and aesthetics alike. And it has practical value, in a film where characters constantly key in on details and act accordingly. The first time a shadow tells Vincent something important, he discovers a girl who attempted suicide. At the hospital, he sits with his estranged wife, and he is for once wholly present. The girl, her daughter, might live, even if his marriage will not.
And then he runs off, to catch a man who steals things, and kills people. We can only wonder whether he careens down the stairway in pursuit of something good and important, or fleeing it. After he sets his eyes on Neil, Heat culminates in image and sound, proceeding for minutes without words, sprinting across open space, wary footsteps amid visual obstacles. The second time a shadow tells Vincent something important, he takes his man down. Light playing on surfaces. Awareness. The blinding whine of a plane overhead, a dying man now dimly lit by an airport. “Told you I’m never going back.” “Yeah.” Respect from knowing enough about someone else. Respect for the things impossible to resolve. A grave. The fastest way out of Los Angeles.