The thing about pure heist movies

Brandon Sanderson has said that one of the two main ideas for the first Mistborn novel was to create a fantasy version of a heist story like Ocean’s Eleven or Sneakers. I probably wasn’t the only one to make the connection before reading that that was his intent, so it did come across. I think the idea of a fantasy caper story is interesting, but as much as I liked Mistborn, it didn’t really satisfy me as a heist story. Maybe that’s because other elements took over more after the first part of the book.

Honestly, though, while I like heist films, I find most of them unsatisfying. I’m not really sure why. Is the archetypal heist story inherently deficient in some way? These stories are compelling, but usually leave me with the sense that something is missing, that they didn’t live up to their potential.

The thing about pure heist movies like Ocean’s Eleven is that they often have to resort to hokey non-chronological storytelling to hide information and build tension, because the actual story is fairly rudimentary. A team gets together, forms a plan, executes the plan, and escapes. There are always a few things that go wrong, and Wikipedia tells me that the thieves surviving at the end is a fairly recent trend; traditionally they would all turn on each other or get caught and everyone would die. But still, the whole telling is like the performance of a magic trick: misdirection, misdirection. You can’t know how it really works until the end, due to the Unspoken Plan Guarantee:

When the characters come up with a plan to save the day, its chances of success are inversely proportional to how much the audience knows about it beforehand.

Maybe that’s the reason they feel so empty to me: you spend the entire film confused, only to find out at the end that the story wasn’t interesting to begin with: “here is a puzzle. Now here is the solution to the puzzle.” There are other issues, as well. The ensemble cast usually means less screen time for each character, and thus less time to grow attached (and less character development). And the focus is usually on grabbing some pile of cash, which I don’t find very interesting.

Like I said, I enjoy heist stories. I like Sneakers, less so Ocean’s Eleven and The Italian Job. And the heist story structure definitely leaves tons of room for brilliance (see: Inception, one of my favorite movies). So what is the draw?

They’re expertise power fantasies. We love to watch a competent character do what they do best, and we love to see a plan in action and find out whether it succeeds. When the shit hits the fan, we love to see our protagonists demonstrate the improvisational genius that led them to survive long enough to become experts in this dangerous business.

I think the confusing storytelling detracts from this. When you don’t know why anyone is doing what they’re doing, and you know nothing of the plan, you can’t even tell when things aren’t going as expected. The cleverness of the hero anticipating the double-cross is lost, though I think to some extent the “hero planned for this exact thing to go wrong in this exact way” twist is a bit of a cop out anyway.

It seems like writing a fantasy heist story would be a fun challenge. I might try to tackle it someday. In the meantime I think The Lies of Locke Lamora is supposed to be one of these, and it’s been on my to-read list forever, so maybe I should just pick it up.

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