Death of the Critic

Anatomy of a Scene - Heat

Written by: Tom Blaich


Characterization through action is what defines film. “Show, don’t tell” is the mantra repeated to writers across the world, yet it is rare that we actually see it done well.
Heat takes this to heart, and the first time that we see our cast of ne’er-do-wells assembled together on screen, we instantly get a sense for who they are, the relationships they have with each other, and the direction the film is headed in. They do this with a combination of action and horror to create a sense of dark foreboding around the group of men.

The first few scenes of the film introduce our main players and establish their relationships and talents. Neil (DeNiro) works his way through a hospital to steal an ambulance. Chris (Kilmer) nonchalantly purchases explosives in a different state. Vincent (Pacino) has sex with his wife and we meet his step daughter before strapping on his badge and gun to go to work. They don’t tell you what they are doing, and the first few minutes of the film are dialogue sparse., but you can tell that the movie is building towards something. There is an electric undercurrent running through these few short scenes as they all prepare for their day. We don’t know exactly what is going to happen, but we do know that these three men will clash.

The scene is a familiar one. A well-oiled group pulls off an almost flawless heist in broad daylight and gets away clean, and part of the reason for this scene being so familiar is this film. This scene is all about building a
mythos around the team, making them into a seasoned group of criminals that others in their world look up to and fear. They did this so well that it changed the way that heists are portrayed on film. So many films have taken cues from Heat to try to replicate its success, but few have managed to succeed in the same way. To capture the horror of the crime. A horror that is intrinsic to the violent nature of the men involved. It’s established simply enough early in the film, and lurks in the background until it rears it’s ugly head at the climax.

The scene opens as Waingro (Gage) leaves his job in a restaurant to hop in a tow truck with Michael (Sizemore). It is quickly established that he is new to the crew, over eager for action and ready to prove himself to the other men. They command respect and have “always work(ed) together.” He comes across as the newbie yearning to impress and it stands to begin to create the character of Waingro, a man more concerned with theatricality and appearances than other people’s lives. He treats the whole situation like it is a big game, and it is the dichotomy between him and the collected and reserved crew that serves to drive home not only how familiar they are with these situations, but where they might have come from.

There is not much difference between Waingro and the crew. Michael is a self-professed action junkie, in the game for the rush of violence. Chris is prone to violent fits of rage and abuses his wife. Neil is cold, unafraid to gun down police officers and civilians alike if they get in his way. The only difference between these four men is the seriousness with which they treat violence.

This scene is so effective because it establishes how terrifying these men can be. As Neil and Chris calmly wait in the stolen ambulance, we see a pair of hockey masks sitting casually on the dash, one black, one white. Chris turns off the radio and they sit staring straight ahead through the windshield. There is no banter, no sense of relaxation between the two men. They just sit like robots as they wait for their moment. The shot cuts back to the tow truck, where we see Michael, loaded down with magazines for his rifle as the truck slowly backs into the shadows.

It is ominous. The camera is low to the ground as the gleaming green truck slowly backs up. We are made to feel small in comparison as the camera cuts to the front and shadows eclipse the cab, we feel it lurking, waiting to pounce. It is like the glimpse you catch of a man at the edge of the woods in a horror movie: while it could be innocuous, you
know it holds dangerous implications.

At this point, we still don’t quite know what is going to happen. Neil doesn’t sit down with us and diagram a plan, stating “We are going to rob an armored truck.” They just do it. And every scene so far has been in service of setting up this moment. Preparing for the heist without telling us, showcasing the personalities of the characters, and moving into position. Chris buys explosives, and his quickness to anger drives a wedge in his marriage. Neil is calm and cold as he walks through the hospital in disguise, much the way he pantomimes normal life through the movie. Vincent is passionate and caring towards his family, and it drives him to do anything he can to stay alive.

As the action approaches, the men pull on hockey masks, furthering their horror imagery. Cold, dark eyes peer out from behind the lifeless plastic. All four stare straight ahead, their humanity covered up and replaced by unemotional violence. When they put those masks on, they cease being people and become killers. Through the masks they become identical. Waingro might be new, Michael might be an action junkie, Neil a collected killer, but once they slide those masks over their faces, they lose their individual identities and become one, reflections of each other.

The tow truck rushes toward the road to ram into the armored truck. The camera is low to the ground and moves backwards, pulling you towards the inevitable action. But the truck is slightly faster as it lunges forward, slowly gaining on the camera. It feels like you are running away, the truck huge and menacing as it nips at your heels. It builds the fear of the action in the audience.

Moments before the truck strikes, the camera stops, cornered against the side of the truck. It takes only a second for the truck to cover the remaining distance and you can
feel the impact of the two vehicles as they slam together, toppling the armored truck like it was a house of cards.

The robbery is remarkable in its fluidity, like a well-choreographed dance of chaos as the four men rush the truck and blow off the doors, lining the groggy guards against the side of the truck. A stopwatch is clicked. “3 minutes” and for once, it is. Each man knows what they are supposed to be doing, and it serves as an excellent backdrop for Waingro to show who he is. As the three more experienced men quickly and calmly do their jobs, Waingro trembles as the guard stands in front of him, a thousand yard stare on his face. As he loses control he lashes out, striking the man with his gun, grasping at violence to regain control of the situation. “You see that shit coming out of their ears? They can’t fucking hear you. Cool it.”

The guard looks forward blankly at Waingro, framed in the center of the screen, the camera slowly coming in. It humanizes him, gives him life and character in direct contrast to the dehumanization of the robbers. The camera cuts back to Waingro and repeats its action, zooming slowly on his face. But where a human’s features should be, there is only expressionless plastic.

“Gotta fuck with me. Wanna fuck with me?” The camera pans around and for a moment we look down the barrel of the gun as it wavers in front of the guards face. A shot tears through the air, blood and brain matter splatter the truck behind them. It is an execution, and as quickly as it happens, the second guard is gunned down as he reaches for a hidden gun.

One guard is left, and in that same expressionless way they have been carrying themselves all scene, Michael walks up, looking to Neil for confirmation before firing two shots into the man’s chest, stepping forward, and firing one last round into the man’s head on the ground. It’s professional and emotionless, a kill out of convenience rather than ego or instinct.

Functionally, what is the difference between the action of the men? Waingro is a monster, a serial killer with a soft spot for theatricality, and a chip on his shoulder the size of a dinner plate. He desperately wants to prove how tough he is, how much better he is than other people, but are the other three any different? There are more than a few executions in this movie, and this pattern is repeated over and over again, where we look each man in the face, their expressions framed by the camera before they are disposed of. It is how Neil kills Waingro at the end of the movie for betraying them, ordering him to look him in the eyes before gunning him down. As he does it, it makes a statement about his character. These men are differentiated by very little, and even as they hunt one another, they are the same person. Masked in violence, they are relentless killers, unstoppable monsters of death and destruction, motivated by the same selfish desires for money or recognition. In their wake they leave a trail of bodies that would make any horror movie monster blush.


Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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