The story is as old as the hills. Small-town businessman comes into the big city feeling smart, prosperous and like the world is on his side. On the train he meets a nice, well-dressed man who boosts the man’s ego by complimenting his intelligence and savvy. Then the well-dressed man lets the other guy in on a secret—he’s got a line on a deal too good to pass up.
The bumpkin businessman feels good about himself, and lucky, and so never asks why anyone would bother to share a sweet deal with him. This, of course, is a question he should ask, however, the deal is too good to be true. The businessman finds out all to late, etc, etc.
The philosophy behind the con is simple and eternal: human greed is easily tapped by the conman’s ingenuity. Let them think they’ll get something for nothing, and they’ll hand you their surplus cash. Equally as eternal (or so it seems these days) is the human interest in the crime story—particularly the story of the smart con.
Even a casual survey of movies of recent memory reflects back to us our fascination with the clever swindle. The proliferation of movies like Ocean’s 11 and 12, Confidence, Criminal, Matchstick Men, The Score and Heist all show us that the clever criminal is a major hero in American culture. The question then, it seems, is why?
For one, the con story’s success is surprising because it is skeptical of capitalism—a supposed American fundamental. However, the logic operating in Ocean’s 11 is that the casino is an evil institution—the MGM Grand or The Mirage itself being just a larger and slicker version of the old con. It flatters the out-of-town gambler into thinking that he, and he alone, can beat the system. For the little guy (the mixed bag of old criminals) to take the casino is just a bit of dog-eat-dog—Vegas taking a taste of its own medicine. One of the taglines for Ocean’s 11 was in fact: “In any other town, they’d be the bad guys.”
Even the insurance company can be robbed (one may feel) without much guilt. One assumes that the victim of Heist’s gold robbery is not the Swiss banking firm, but rather the insurance firm who will repay the losses. Like the casino, the insurance company preys on the average citizen—not with the promise of good fortune but the threat of ill fortune. In either case the conman is akin to Robin Hood, using a more direct form of the villain’s own means. Such is some of the logic behind the movie.
The con story also has the added benefit of not aspiring to any great height. Unlike the casino or lottery with its promise of wealth, the story of the big con delivers in its promise of a good time—it does not lie and claim to be enlightening. Unlike the conman, the con game story does not flatter our vanity. It stands before us quite naked, its goal—to delight—made clear from the first moment.
So the Christian viewer can see the reasons behind his or her automatic enjoyment of the machinations of the con. Yet reservations lurk in the neighborhood. The moviegoer’s hope can never be the same as the gambler or the conman—to get something for nothing. The Christian viewer pays in his own ways, with sympathy and time, not to mention money. Going to see Ocean’s 12, I anteed 10 bucks for my movie ticket and doubled down on Coke
and some popcorn.
The movie paid off moderately well. Where 11 was like classical music—specifically a Beethoven fugue with the theme stated, reversed, turned upside down and finally resolved—12 is like jazz, two hours of riffs and improvisations off of the established theme but with no resolution. The film uses all the tricks of a game of three-card Monty. In that ruse, the dealer attaches stories to the characters of the cards, and so forces us to attach logic to their movements. But the story and the movements are separate. He tells us one thing and does another with his hands.
The same goes for Ocean’s 12: clever dialogue and editing weave us one story while arranging things in ways we didn’t expect. This is all standard practice in the con film, the problem is, for both this and other such films, the morals have been misplaced in the shuffle.
Such is the film’s price—and we need to weigh it carefully. Perhaps the Christian can still delight in the picture and not purchase its message wholesale. The critical believer sees goodness in the beauty of the story, its craft and ingenuity, without accepting the MacGuffin—the desired goal of the hero.
Yet even the clever viewer of the crime film beware. The con story also inevitably tells of ambition taken too far. Any good conman needs to know when to walk away. The discriminating, Christian viewer need be willing to do the same. In the lingo of the con, the sucker is a “mark.” David Maurer, writer of the book that inspired The Sting, hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “It is not intelligence but integrity which determines whether or not a man is a good mark.” The same could be said of the moviegoer, because while we may give movies our attention, we must never give them our unreserved confidence.
In the end, the con movie asks us to root for the wrong guy. Only one heist movie of recent years gets it right, I think. The Spanish Prisoner (if you haven’t seen it, rent it tonight) weaves the story of a ripping con, but seen through the eyes of the mark. The story is driven by crime, to be sure, but our sympathies lie with an honest man. What’s more, the clever criminals in Spanish Prisoner have all the charm and wit of Danny Ocean and co., but in the end are also shown to be the baddies they are. The final unveilings of The Spanish Prisoner are not just revolutions in plot but moral revelations as well. Ocean’s 12, for all its polished fun, asks us to write off sin by saying “boys will be boys.”
But perhaps this is all giving too much attention to some light fare intended for general enjoyment. Yet as a Christian, I feel the need to see all things in that light. A line from Ocean’s 12 bolsters my point, quoting Danny Ocean of course: “Every time I walk into a joint I’m trying to see all the angles. I can’t stop my brain from working. It’s who I am.”[Felix Tallon lives in St Andrews, Scotland, but is currently laying low in Florida.]
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