****1/2 (Tour de force)

Throughout Thief’s virtually wordless opening sequence, Mann both lays the foundation for and sets a sort of false expectation regarding the rest of the film. Aside from the heist centerpiece and the relatively simple action sequence at the end of the film, Thief proceeds in a low, contemplative key that has all the drive of a regular action film while focusing on Frank. But the ideal of this master thief that is established in the beginning is vital to the movie; it is the conception that Frank is continually pressured into adopting, as he is torn between his criminal ways and his genuine desire to go on the straight and narrow. Practically every character aside from Jessie pushes and pulls Frank to either keep going or to leave, but all pigeonhole him, only thinking of him as a thief.

There is no denying that Frank (and by proxy Mann and the audience) takes pleasure in what he calls his “magic act”. Mann shoots the heists largely in extreme close-ups, focusing on the hands of the thieves and the detailed instruments; though the viewer doesn’t necessarily understand exactly what is going on, there is such an incredibly purposefulness to each shot that carries the viewer along in the controlled rush that the sequences offer. The rest of the film rarely lets go of this intensity, judiciously using tight close-ups and long shots that observe the body language of the characters (notably, Frank is much more dynamic in his motions), frequently holding in a way that both increases tension and allows the viewer to ponder what drives Frank. The visual look is also incredibly gorgeous, rendering each scene with both unmistakable, gritty realism and a more dreamlike aura. Especially in the nighttime scenes, the neon streets seem just a bit abstract, just a bit too beautiful to be real.

One of Thief’s greatest strengths is that it is willing to seriously consider Frank’s desire to become, for lack of a better term, ordinary. In the bravura coffee shop sequence, Mann forges an uncommon and touching intimacy towards his recollections of the past and hopes for the future, using both the ruminative dialogue and the power of Caan’s by turns ferocious and subdued performance present two sides to the complicated figure at the center of the film.

Tangerine Dream’s score must be mentioned, both in just how lush the pulsing synths sound and in how they are used. Without exception, the synths only come in moments of transition; almost none of the dialogue scenes have a score, whether it be a quiet discussion or a tense confrontation, and even a large portion of the second heist lacks any music cues. The transitions are, quite simply, the most important parts to Frank’s life (and indeed, Mann’s filmography), as they signal to him that he is indeed going somewhere, that there is something more than the doldrums of running successful businesses or the quick thrills of heists.

But in the end, Thief reveals its hand in the best way possible, as both it and Frank realize that he cannot exist in a world with anyone by himself. Caan’s work is key here, as he manages to sell his character’s devolution in a matter of minutes, and his shedding of all of his accouterments feels both saddening and cathartic; after all this time he is free to fulfill his true desires. And he does so, in a glorious haze of gunfire that is assisted by the film’s most soaring music cue and startling alternations between slow-motion and quick cuts that make the deaths all the more impactful. Thief is pure genre, but it also feels like so much more: character study, ode to professionalism, and drama, all made with an equal amount of pulp and grace.


Even though South takes place almost exclusively in the town of Jasper, Texas, focusing on the horrific murder of a black man, there is no denying that there is a universality to the portrayal of the many different locales throughout the film. The audience is shown a cross section of this Southern community in parts, never using anything too specific to Jasper but dealing in the universal iconography of cars, forests, churches, stores, and other such commonplace signifiers.

Akerman’s style is as unmistakeable as ever, subtly shaping the viewer’s perception of the setting. Predominately, static shots are used, often of individuals dwarfed by their surroundings. Even in shots that appear to be in the countryside, cars can be frequently heard and seen, serving as a connecting device between these disparate locations. This is taken to a further extent with the extended tracking shots taken from a car, patiently observing as the buildings change, get more crowded or more separated, or disappear altogether, as people drive by and frequently wave to the camera.

These two signature Akerman techniques are contrasted with the interviews and the pivotal church scene. The interviews are perhaps the both the most political and the most intimate passages in South, putting side by side the personal, passionate recollections of black people which detail racism from both the 1960s and the present (1998) and the fairly dispassionate, sometimes misguided or downright false testimonies of white people (who are only seen in these scenes and in one brief shot of a white man in a field on a horse). The body language also contributes to the divide, as the black interviewees lean in, presenting themselves and their words with frank warmness (occasionally with accoutrements like children or an electric guitar) whereas the first two white people are shot behind desks and the third in an armchair. (Oddly, during two interviews, including the third white man’s, there are several fades to black, even though the others are all done in an unedited shot.)

Without a doubt, however, the most important and impactful scene is the sequence set in a church. Partly passionate and partly reserved, it covers both the political and the personal responses to the brutal tragedy that was James Byrd, Jr.’s murder. Fittingly, it expresses these emotions to a large degree through song that acts as both a lament and praise towards God, and it is no accident that all but one of South’s close-ups are in this scene.

I must echo the concerns of others that South is inadequate when it comes to articulating a clear position on the South and its inherent racism. But the key to me is the shots of nature that appear sporadically, especially in the last third, which suggest to me that the movie is quite simply a document. It is meant to be an evocation of the South, if not the “South” and all the political and societal entanglements that the term implies, and if it doesn’t achieve the lofty heights of a true dissection of this messy region, it is an experience the likes of which only Akerman can truly deliver.