****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.