I decided to watch Heat because of the epidemic.
Not the most obvious choice, maybe. With things as bleak as they seem, Michael Mann’s 1995 crime epic doesn’t promise the comforts of a good rom-com like When Harry Met Sally… or a classic family film like Finding Nemo, movies that offer the kind of happy ending we’re looking for these days.
Nor does it provide the perverse pleasures of Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion; that film’s take on a global pandemic eerily mirrors our own, and helps us imagine just how bad things could get.
I did watch Contagion during the pandemic, and it did creep me out a little, with its shots of desolate stores and streets. But Heat, which turns 25 years old this year, deals with a more existential kind of emptiness – one that becomes the film’s steady, plaintive bassline against the catchy melody of its cops-and-robbers plotting. And in its own strange and very specific way, it comforted me.
Al Pacino’s relentless detective Vincent Hanna chases Robert De Niro’s brooding thief Neil McCauly, who’s after “one last score” before he gets out of town. Many filmmakers, from Ben Affleck to Christopher Nolan, have copied the film’s melody — its shootouts, double-crosses and close calls — but few have bothered with that haunting bassline, which conveys the loneliness of modern existence.
Mann evokes that aching feeling visually: Figures framed against cold, hard glass and sharp angles, or overlooking an endless, glittering cityscape – LA as it might have been painted by Edward Hopper.
In one scene, De Niro’s McCauley slinks wearily into his home, somehow silhouetted in rooms already sunk in deep shadow, and leans against a large window that frames a churning body of water and a somber blue sky. Here Mann captures a mood of desperate longing – a need for something too far away to be seen.
Mann often shoots his characters dwarfed by their environments like this. Action filmmakers more given to glamorizing their cops-and-robbers characters — Michael Bay, Peter Berg, David Ayer — tend to avoid having them appear so small and impotent, as they make films that expressly avoid engaging with impotence of any kind.
For the last few months, the threat of COVID-19 has forced millions of Americans to go against our biological and emotional needs and stay apart from one another. Physical touch has gone from comfort to taboo, other people represent potential dangers rather than safe havens.
Feelings of impotence are bound up in our current state of loneliness, in the understanding that you, yourself, are not enough, even as you also understand that you’re unable to do anything about that.
The tragedy in Heat lies with characters who try, and fail, to do something about it. De Niro’s McCauley falls for another lonely soul, but he won’t commit to her, knowing that he’ll always be on the run. Pacino’s Hanna, a ghostly figure in his (third) marriage, comes to life only when he’s out on the hunt for McCauley and his crew. In one muted sequence, Hanna’s wife Justine (played by Diane Verona) speaks of his growing absence in their relationship:
“You walk among the remains of dead people,” she tells him.
And in another quiet conversation — the film’s most famous scene — Hanna and McCauley share a moment of truce over a cup of coffee. As they study each other, cop and criminal, each man begins to see his reflection in the other: a man defined by what he does — and nothing else. Theirs is the most intimate relationship in the film, but the path of collision on which they’re trapped dictates that their closeness cannot last. In the end, only one of the two men will survive.
Even the film’s minor characters seem perpetually on the verge of a sort of disappearance. Hanna’s adolescent step-daughter (a young Natalie Portman), for example, suffers anxiety attacks and retreats into herself because her biological father (pointedly unseen in the film) never shows up for her. An ex-convict (Dennis Haysbert) wants to make an honest living working at a diner, but he must deal with an abusive boss — and a society that would prefer for all those who have entered the industrial prison complex to just disappear.
Ultimately both of these characters will commit acts of self-destruction. Another film might have cut these subplots, but Mann seeks to create a world with living and breathing characters, lost though they might be, existing both at its center and at its margins. In Heat, individuals have both solitude and suffering in common.
Movies don’t have to uplift or inspire, of course. Sometimes they need only to understand. You can find a cathartic release in being understood, and in watching Heat, I felt my own struggle with loneliness understood, and clarified – which is to say: seen. This struggle isn’t new, and many of us grappled with it long before COVID-19, and will do so long after. I feel lucky that I’ve gotten to see some of my loved ones and cherish their company. But even in those fleeting, happy moments when the loneliness subsides, I can’t help but think about the characters in Heat – the cop, the thief, the young girl, the ex-con – who will remain alone.