Directed by Spike Lee. Written by Russell Gerwitz. Starring Denzel Washington, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe, and Christopher Plummer.
I’ve always loved heist movies, even as a kid. The set-up and payoff of a heist reminds me of moviemaking itself. Lots of equipment and seemingly disparate elements are thrown together, usually at considerable expense and planning, to be operated by specialists whose training has prepared them to deal specifically with these items. There’s a lot of clutter, a lot of overlapping duties, and—because there’s often a lot of big egos in work—a lot of conflicts and potential ways for it all to go wrong.
When a heist (or a film) goes well, as in Topkapi or Bob le Flambeur (or its terrific update, The Good Thief) or Ocean’s Eleven, the whole operation looks gleaming and flawless. We see the heist often from the perspective of the detective trying to sort it out, just as we as viewers see a movie unfurl and try to piece it together as it progresses. Just as often, however, the movie’s hero (or, at least, the character with whom we identify) is the thief himself. In perfect heist movies, we’re given just enough sense of how the operation works to make wild guesses, to fall for red herrings, to figure the whole thing out. As the spectator, we’re the detective, but we also get to be the thief.
It’s this dance, of seeing the operation at once from the inside—as a chaotic, barely functioning mess—and from the outside—as a cool, perfect shimmer—that makes heist movies so great. In movies detailing successful heists, we feel the occasional thrill we get when we accomplish something greater than we thought possible of ourselves. When a heist goes terribly wrong (see: Reservoir Dogs, Big Deal on Madonna Street), however, it’s equally cathartic to watch how such a well-made contraption collapses under the weight of human error. Even in a bad heist movie, we’re reminded of how all our clockwork and precise, rational inventions can be undercut by something so simple as a director, or writer, or actor, or producer—rather than a thief—making a bad choice.
On paper, Inside Man looks like a string of bad choices. Spike Lee directing a heist flick?! What could we expect from a filmmaker who, in the mid-1980s, was routinely typecast as the “black Woody Allen?”
Actually, Lee’s career has had little in common with Allen’s thematically or aesthetically, beyond the frequent use of New York as a setting. Lee quickly established himself as his own entity, but his closest antecedent is Sidney Lumet. Both directors are socially conscious, are interested in grit over glamour, and both see New York with the same hardnosed and acerbic, but ultimately loving, gaze. Lee’s more of a visual experimenter than Lumet—Lee’s colors splash and razzle; he overuses a film-school shot in which a person stands still while everything else around slides by; he sometimes changes film stock in the middle of a movie—but both are documentarians when it comes to dialogue. It’s not just that their characters speak in regionally specific, time-specific slang, but that their references are up to the minute, too. For all of Jungle Fever’s alleged controversy, there’s nothing quite so charged as when John Turturro discusses the mere possibility of voting for the black David Dinkins for mayor (The movie was released a few months before the mayoral election.) in a room full of racists. Lee raced to make Get On the Bus to commemorate the first anniversary of the Million Man March; he started shooting the magnificent 25th Hour six months after 9/11, and shot footage of Ground Zero being razed. Likewise, Lumet shoots movies about then-recent NYC history—a real-life police corruption scandal (Serpico), a fictional one that draws on real events (Prince of the City), an actual bizarre trial (his new Find Me Guilty), and an even more bizarre heist.
That last film, of course, is Dog Day Afternoon, which might be the best heist-gone-wrong flick ever made in America—it’s certainly among the most influential—and it should come as no surprise that Lumet’s spiritual heir has made an homage to it. Four bank robbers, dressed like painters in coveralls and white masks, enter a lower Manhattan bank and shut it down. They’re led by Dalton Russell (the steely-eyed, mellow-voiced Clive Owen), whose line readings have the dead calm of a completely insane man. Russell’s not nuts, but he knows that it helps his cause if everyone around him thinks he is. The robbers force the 50 hostages to strip down and put on clothes and white masks just like the robbers, so that no one in the movie, or watching it, can tell the difference between friend and foe. At one point, the female robber “embeds” herself into a group of unwitting hostages.
Soon enough, a squall of sirens and cops are on the scene, led by hostage negotiators Keith Frazier (the mighty Denzel Washington) and Bill Mitchell (the even mightier Chiwetel Ejiofor). At this point, a customary heist flick would start with the gunshots and action twirls.
But Lee, like Lumet, loves talk, and Inside Man is mostly a movie of inaction, of people actually thinking before they shoot, of questioning and re-questioning motives. Writer Russell Gerwitz gives us lines that zing and pop—for all of the tension, this is the funniest Spike Lee movie ever—while Lee provides the focus and dramatic timing that’s needed to tighten the plot. Visually, the movie’s studied casualness mimics Lumet’s work as well. Lee underplays the color palette (mostly subtle browns, grays, and muted blue tones). The camera movement is fluid, although the edits are often jagged and jumpy, and there’s little sense of flash. One neat trick, though: The heist is interspersed with post-heist interrogation that’s shot in glaring whites and in a film stock that seems dilapidated and worn. Lee uses this scheme to distinguish between the timeframes, but also to show how the investigation is disintegrating as it progresses.
Matt Zoller Seitz gets at another visual clue:
I also appreciated Lee’s visual intelligence: The way Inside Man starts out by isolating its supporting characters with discrete, zoomed-in close-ups (most of them are talking on cell phones or listening to iPods), and then, as the movie goes on, unites everyone by moving from person to person in lengthy, uncut, Steadicam shots. It’s a visual analog for how trauma forces people out of their private technological bubble and forces them to connect with what Deadwood creator David Milch calls “the larger human organism.”
Lee’s always making points about the “larger human organism.” He tends to throw everything he’s thinking about at the moment into his project, which means that there are always jarring digressions. (Sometimes, you want to yell “Focus!” in the theater.) Here, it’s a brief discourse on an ultraviolent, Grand Theft Auto-esque video game that one of the hostages, an eight-year-old boy, plays throughout the movie. Lee complicates things by making Russell be the person who’s horrified by it, and who ends the scene thusly: “Everything’s gonna be fine, kid. And I’m going to have a talk with your father about that game.”
A high moral tone comes from the lead robber, who we’ve earlier seen pummeling a hostage. People’s motives are more complex, says Lee, than the roles we give them. This concept works throughout Inside Man. Russell doesn’t seem interested in the open vault at all, which begins the question: what, exactly, is he robbing? Frazier is a good detective, but he’s in the midst of a scandal regarding missing police funds ($140,000). This negotiation could lead to his exoneration and a boost in status, so his motives aren’t entirely noble. The owner of the bank (Christopher Plummer) seems concerned about the hostages, but it quickly becomes clear that there’s something in that bank that he’d rather neither the robbers nor the detectives ever see.
So, Big Points are always being undercut by smaller ones. It’s precisely this smudging of agenda flag-waving that makes Inside Man so terrific. Given the structure of a generic heist flick, Lee has a strong enough foundation to make several sly jabs throughout race and city life. One jab doesn’t mean much, but it’s the accretion of little hits that makes the movie have so much impact.
Visual jabs abound. The hostages, all masked in oversized white garb and shut in unlit bank offices, huddle together and sob in fear. The moody lighting and murky green color schemes remind us of nothing so much as torture chambers. The masking hoods are white, as are most of the victims, which is Lee’s tricky way of showing us a reverse vision of Abu Ghraib. A man is beaten behind closed doors; we only see the action through frosted, distorting glass, but the thuds are sickening. A hooded hostage gets shot in the head, but it’s filmed fuzzily, at a considerable remove, by a security video camera. There’s an eerie feeling that we’ve seen this before, and of course we have—it looks like grainy news footage. The robbers discover diamonds in a safe deposit box, and documentation that links the box’s owner to Nazi war profiteers. At one point, that box is blood-stained, just like Nazi hands. Lee continually imbues this bank heist with political urgency, but he doesn’t beat us over the head with it. Instead, these images float in our consciousness, and refuse to leave us alone.
These words haunt us, too. Racist slander is present here, but muted and convoluted. The white cop who discovers the heist feels perfectly comfortable talking to Washington. They’re both comrades-in-arms, after all. An easy camaraderie develops as the cop tells Detective Frazier (Washington) about the first time he had a gun pointed at his face. Suddenly, the cop is talking about how these “spic” kids taunted and threatened him—he throws this out casually; he’s not even conscious of his racism—until Frazier politely holds his hand up. “Let’s refrain from the color commentary, alright?” The cop hems and haws, but ultimately continues the story without racial epithets. The beat cop gets the last word: “Sorry about that, detective. From now on, I’ll try to watch what I say. You never know who might be listening.” Frazier smiles, the cop smiles, and they go about their business. There’s no shouting match, no lecture, no Crash-like histrionics, but a definite exchange of ideas has taken place. The whole sequence seems lazy, until Frazier catches on that last line—“You never know who might be listening”—and understands (We do, too.) a vital piece of the heist operation.
Instead of giving us big speeches and expository standstills, the dialogue meanders, zigzags, and punches so lightly that you don’t realize you’ve been TKO’ed until a beat later. The chatter is refreshing, and it’s used in all the complicated ways that talk is used in real life—to ratchet up tension, to explain, to obfuscate, to arrive at uneasy understandings, to joke, to flirt, to tease. It’s languorous until it snaps to attention.
The performances throughout work this way, too. Washington’s great—that honeyed, mellifluous voice hides (or almost hides) potential malice. His Frazier isn’t as calm as Owen’s Russell but, then, Frazier’s got more to lose. His mood ebbs and rolls so gradually that we’re surprised when he erupts. Jodie Foster plays a shadowy “fixer” who tries to manipulate everyone—the banker, the detectives, the bank robbers. She’s so ice-cold that we shiver whenever she’s onscreen. Some critics have disliked the fact that her actual job is so ill-defined, but that’s part of the point—the less the characters know about her, the more effective she can be. She’s hidden in plain sight. We think she’s brittle until we hear her voice, and then we’re scared. Ejiofor gets to show off his comic side, but his easy banter hides his ferocity and acuity as well.
As in even the best heist flicks, there are a few things that don’t make sense—why didn’t the banker just destroy the offending evidence?—but Inside Man is so riveting that you don’t notice until after the movie. For all of the casual chatter, it puts you on the edge of your seat, and refuses to let you go until the credits roll. And after that, it’s the conversations and visual exchanges and social quandaries that stick with you, even after the mystery is solved.
I realized, midway through the movie, that the movie’s title has resonance offscreen as well as on. The heist, as well structured by Gerwitz as it is, is just a crutch for Lee. After a string of critical and commercial bombs (his last big hit was 2000’s The Original Kings of Comedy), Lee needs a hit. (He got it—Inside Man made $29 million last weekend.) But he’s made a hit on his own terms. He’s taken what he’s learned from Lumet, and procured a big budget, an A-list cast, and a good crowd-pleasing script. But Lee got more from the producers than they get from him. Inside Man is a Spike Lee Joint through and through; it just happens to be an effective thriller. All of Lee’s concerns about race, class, and America are present. He’s gone inside Hollywood, but emerged unscathed and with a Hollywood budget and PR campaign. On the surface, Inside Man clicks like a well-oiled, ever-tightening machine.. Within it, however, is the invigorating, maddening mess of America.
For an alternate, though still somewhat positive, reading of the movie, check out Wax Banks.