Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

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Did Ocean’s Eleven establish the heist movie style?  I don’t know, but it seems to have at least played a part in setting up a template that now feels cliche, but fun all the same.  Whether or not these stylistic choices are or were cliche, they keep the audience a step behind the characters.  We’re told what the heroes are up against, but then it’s not until the end that you realize how much of the plan we weren’t told about, even if it’s made to seem like we know as much as the characters know.

And some of the ‘twists’ in the third act feel highly improbable, but you go along with it anyways.  I was trying to keep track of all the sudden reveals and turns, and I couldn’t really process how Danny Ocean’s crew did what they did, I just had to accept it.

And this is a fun movie, as so many heist movies are.  It’s sensational and silly, and since we are already suspending our disbelief, we’ll suspend it even a little more.  That’s because a movie like this pits the good guy versus the bad guy.  We want to see George Clooney’s Danny Ocean take down Andy Garcia’s Terry Benedict, the wealthy and powerful casino owner.

This movie gives us plenty of fist-pumping moments and capitalizes on our desire to see the hero win.  And despite Danny’s ex-con status, we don’t see him as anything other than George Clooney.  He might be a criminal with a shady past, but that doesn’t matter to us.  Another movie might try to play up the moral gray areas of his character (I mean, he has an ex-wife who seems to hate him so that indicates something…), but this movie reduces everyone to archetypes, in a good way.

Ocean’s Eleven is a genre movie like The Fast and the Furious or Blade Runner, for example.  Those movies, despite their differences, are lathered with obligations to their genre.  Going into each of those movies you have an idea of what to expect.  Whether it’s the disenchanted noir detective or the underdog hero entering a new world with a new villain that he will ultimately topple (Harry PotterDays of ThunderThe Matrix, etc.), the movie plays on your knowledge of what should happen.  Some movies undercut these expectations (Chinatown), and others embrace them, taking you on the ride it seems like you already want to go on by buying a ticket to see the movie.

Ocean’s Eleven is definitely one of the latter.  We’re never really surprised by what happens in this movie, and if we are, it’s just about how it happens, not what happens.  We know the good guy will get the money from the bad guy, so the story becomes all about the specifics of the plan, creating engaging set pieces in each stage of the plan.

So Ocean’s Eleven is a spectacle, I suppose.  We’re not meant to question the characters, their motivations or the extent of their plan.  We just trust that they have one, and we enjoy the fireworks.  Soderbergh plays with suspense and moments when you’re led to think something could go wrong, but ultimately our heroes always remain the smartest people in the room.

When they finally get away with the money, they walk out the front door with sly smiles like the plan was never in doubt.  To us, though, it looked like they might be caught.  We have the sam “all is lost” moment in so many movies, when the car allegedly containing the money is tracked down to a local airport, but then we suddenly learn that the car is empty, having been driven remotely, and the bags of money really contain coupons.

So to the audience, there’s a question of whether the heroes will get away with it, but the heroes don’t share in that, they know they’ve already won.  By the end of the movie we just realize how far behind the protagonists we were, much like the antagonist, and I think we’re meant to admire Danny Ocean and company.  Instead of ever relating to their desires, fears, concerns or vulnerabilities, we are meant to look at these characters like a cast of acrobats in a well-rehearsed performance, flinging their bodies this way and that but with no doubt in their mind that everything will go as planned.

And why do we like that?  It seems like this should feel as though the audience was treated as though they were stupid.  It’s almost a cheap screenwriting device to have the characters, believed to be in peril, suddenly escape with the aid of a brand new story device, but the point here, of course, is that none of this is brand new.  We should figure out that the ‘eleven’ are smart and their plan incredibly detailed.  There are subtle set ups that you might quickly forget about because there are just so many devices established early on that could come back into play.  We’re given all these tools from which we might be able to devise their ultimate plan, but we’re thrown off the scene because the movie tells us the characters’ plan, and it’s only when Matt Damon’s character realizes he’s been partially left out of the loop that we might also consider that we’re being left out of the greater loop.

Ocean’s Eleven is a tremendously fun movie.  It never tries too hard, but it’s directed with confidence, as if by a man who has made better, more challenging films but knows exactly what this one should be, just a genre film.  Soderbergh, an accomplished filmmaker already, is operating more with and against the genre restrictions than anything else.  He’s making this movie for people who know they want to see a heist movie, and that means there’s nothing needed to get the audience on your side.  From the very first frame of the movie, we’re in the palm of his hand.  We want to know that Danny and his crew are the smartest guys in the room and will take us on a ride.  It never matters who Danny really is or what he’s done because it’s ingrained in the genre that we want the underdog bank heist members to get away with it.

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