Good Fortune

The Good Thief

Writer/director Neil Jordan’s The Good Thief is a hoot, and I mean that both positively and negatively. It’s great to see a movie with such balls, and yet it fucks with the audience in a way that degrades it significantly.

It’s difficult if not impossible to frame my comments in a way that won’t give away too much of what happens in the movie, so if you’re one of those freaks who can’t handle the game being given away, stop reading. (As for me, I threatened people until they told me the secrets of The Crying Game and Fight Club before I saw them, yet I still get great pleasure out of being surprised/suckered.)

A re-make of a 1955 French film that I have not seen, The Good Thief follows Bob (Nick Nolte, in a strong turn), a gambler and heroin addict living in France who is jovially down on his luck. He puts all his remaining money on a horse, and when asked what will happen if he loses, he matter-of-factly replies, “I’ll have hit rock bottom. I’ll have to change my ways.” He means it to be funny, but the comment reveals Bob to be among the most charmingly clear-eyed addicts the world has ever seen. Of course, Bob’s horse loses, and he handcuffs himself to a bed to detox. (If you’re broke, what’s your alternative?) Oh yes, Bob is also an art expert. The character of Bob isn’t remotely realistic, but it’s sharply drawn, and its quirks give the movie most of its charm.

Bob is approached about a heist, and he agrees to do it even though he had retired from a life of crime. The score? A trove or priceless paintings at a casino compound. Impregnable, of course, or nearly so. Bob assembles his team, plans for the inevitable Judas, and tries to keep a cop who suspects what he’s up to off his trail. (The cat-and-mouse game reminded me of a good-humored Heat.) The thieves run into twins (the acting/writing/directing Polish brothers of Twin Falls Idaho) planning a different heist at the casino that same night. These are just a few of the complications in a story full of them. Bob has the easiest job in all of this: Because he’s constantly being watched, his role in the heist is to go the casino and gamble.

The Good Thief looks, smells, and tastes like a heist movie, and most of the plot revolves around the planning of the burglary. But, in the end, that heist doesn’t happen, and even if it did, it wouldn’t matter, because it finally means almost nothing. The movie is a maguffin for almost its entire length, a ploy to keep the audience interested while something else happens.

You could say the same thing about other movies — The Usual Suspects comes to mind — but at least in that case the movie ended up being about how Verbal pulled a fast one on the cop. This feels like a cheat, with the audience invested in the heist plot and waiting to see how it turns out, only to be thwarted. (Sean Penn’s The Pledge pulled a similar trick.)

And what does happen in The Good Thief? Bob’s luck changes. The thieving goes awry, and Bob is sitting at the casino, gambling and winning. And winning. And winning. And although the heist got botched, Bob legally cleans out the casino. (The other heist, incidentally, the one planned by the twin brothers, goes off without a hitch, and Bob has to be paid by check.)

I’ve written before about the role of chance in the work of Paul Auster, but there the luck typically sets up the story rather than resolves it. The Good Thief employs luck at its climax, and while there’s a certain poetry to making the outcome of a film about games of chance contingent on a deck of cards, the strategy makes the film’s ending arbitrary, like part a Choose Your Own Adventure book (if you’re old or young enough to remember those multiple-choice narratives).

And on that level, the movie pissed me off. Yet The Good Thief is playful in tone, is skillful in execution, and establishes gambling and chance as themes early, and it’s hard to hold a grudge against the damned thing. Compared to played-straight con/heist movies (such as David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner and the creatively named Heist), The Good Thief and the recent Matchstick Men are breaths of fresh air. They recognize that we’ve all seen pretty much all a crime caper has to offer, and they up the ante.

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