Tonight's screening has an interesting history. There are actually two movies in the festival this year called The Good Thief. The festival programmers distinguished them by calling one of them R. T. Herwig's The Good Thief; the other was directed by Neil Jordan. Unfortunately, some people were apparently still confused, and at one of the screenings of what was supposed to be Neil Jordan's The Good Thief, the print for R.T. Herwig's The Good Thief was brought instead. My boss was actually at that screening. He told me they offered people a couple of options--stay and watch the wrong film, or get your money back.

I had wanted to see Neil Jordan's The Good Thief myself, but had not been able to work it into my schedule. Earlier this week, however, a woman from the festival called me, telling me she had "bad news." They had decided to cancel tonight's screening of Hukkle, one of the films I had been most interested in seeing. (I'm not clear on why, exactly; I heard later that they hadn't got the print on time or something.) However, they had decided to replace Hukkle with an extra screening of The Good Thief (the Neil Jordan one), probably to make up for their earlier mistake. And they had already chosen Hukkle as a festival favorite, so it was going to be screened again on Wednesday the 16th, the last day of the festival. So this was actually good news for me. It meant that not only could I see the movie I really wanted to see, I also got a bonus film added to my schedule.

So, instead of Hukkle, I went to see The Good Thief tonight. Sarah, who had planned to accompany me to Hukkle (and she still does plan to, when I see it on Wednesday) was not interested in The Good Thief, so I came by myself, with my Hukkle ticket in hand (the festival people are very good about letting you exchange your tickets for pretty much anything, at any time).

Film I saw today: The Good Thief

The Good Thief

This is the latest film from director Neil Jordan, whom you may remember from such films as The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire, and Michael Collins. The Good Thief stars Nick Nolte. Ralph Fiennes is also in it, but his part is really little more than a cameo. A lesser-known--but nevertheless great--actor from France has a bigger part: Tcheky Karyo. Apparently he was born in Turkey, but grew up in Paris, and the first part of his long and prolific acting career (he's been in over 70 movies) was made up mostly of French films, including the classic action thriller La Femme Nikita. He had a small part in one of the more recent James Bond films (GoldenEye), and he also showed up in The Messenger (the recent film about Joan of Arc). He tends to play villains, as he did in The Patriot (Mel Gibson's overblown action spectacular about the Revolutionary war), Arabian Nights (a recent TV movie version of the famous stories which was actually surprisingly good) and Kiss of the Dragon (one of Jet Li's latest fighting flicks, and one of his best movies so far in America). His latest role is as a scientist in The Core (I haven't seen the film, but I'd bet that his character gets killed; that happens to his characters quite often, and since he's one of the few foreign guys in the movie, the odds are against him). I'm spending all this time talking about him just because I think he's a great actor, and he's been stuck in second-rate roles in second-rate movies for way too long, so I want to bring attention to him.

Luckily, this is not one of Karyo's second-rate roles. Nor is it a second-rate film; in fact, it's probably the best film he's ever been in, and certainly the best Neil Jordan film I've ever seen. The Good Thief may, at first glance, appear to be just another heist film, but careful viewing reveals it to be much, much more. It takes the conventions of the typical heist film and plays with them lovingly, ultimately fashioning itself into a wonderfully entertaining and joyful celebration of artifice. This is a film about lying, conning, telling stories, and bull shitting; it's about forgeries, fakes, twins, fantasies, and transformations. So ultimately it's about film, and the fun we can have with it. After all, what is film (and art in general) but lying, storytelling, bull shitting, transformations, and fantasy?

The Good Thief starts off at full speed, throwing us right into the seedy, underground world of our main character, Bob Montagnet (Nick Nolte), an infamous thief who is now "retired" and living as a drunk, drugged-out gambler. Nick Nolte specializes in playing guys like this--old, beaten-up, sarcastic, alcoholic, druggie, world-wise scalawags. Maybe he's so good at this kind of character because he's played the role in his real life for some time now. We meet Bob as he's sitting playing cards (and losing) in a sleazy dive and exchanging witty repartee with a young guy named Said who happens to be his drug dealer. And this is one of the things that really threw me off about the movie at first--the witty repartee. All the dialogue is incredibly smart--full of word-play and world-weary sarcasm--and it gets bandied back and forth at incredible speed, delivered smoothly and with perfect timing by the actors. In fact, the dialogue is so smooth and perfect and witty that it comes off as artificial and unrealistic. Which of course it is--this is a movie we're watching, after all; all the lines are scripted. But normally movies are written so that the dialogue doesn't feel scripted. We're supposed to believe that this is all real, that people might actually say these things to each other. But nobody could be as clever and witty as the people are in this film. And, like I said, at first this really put me off. It was only later that I realized what Jordan was trying to do--that he was deliberately playing up the artificiality of the film to make a point. The Good Thief is, in fact, all about artifice, and clever trickery. And in a world of artifice and trickery, what language would people speak if not the language of artifice and trickery?

Just as Roger finishes a drug purchase with Said, a detective shows up at the bar/gambling house. Said freaks out and takes the cop hostage. Making matters worse is the fact that Said and the cop don't speak the same language. Bob helps translate and ultimately helps take Said down, saving the cop. It turns out that he and the cop are old friends/enemies. The cop's name is Roger (this is Tcheky Karyo, by the way), and for him, Bob is the one that got away. Everyone knows Bob is a thief, but Roger was never able to get him on anything big. Roger thanks him for helping him out, but is suspicious. He doesn't believe Bob has really retired.

It's around this time Bob runs into the next important character, a young woman named Anne (played by slim, breathy, Georgian--as in former-Soviet Union Georgia--new-comer, Nutsa Kukhianidze; she's not a great actress, but she's okay in the part). She's pretty clearly a prostitute, and strangely enough seems relatively satisfied with her line of work, but Bob doesn't approve of her pimp (he's abusive and exploitative--who would have thought a pimp would be like that?) and helps her get away from him. Anne is attracted to Bob almost immediately, but he clearly doesn't want to get entangled with her and pawns her off on his much younger friend and assistant, Paulo. Paulo really looks up to Bob, and people sometimes even call him Bob. He also is clearly very attracted to Anne.

Anne isn't totally satisfied with this false Bob, but she accepts him for the moment, and the real Bob wanders off. He runs into another friend and assistant of his, Raoul, and with his help squanders the rest of his money on an insane bet. His losing streak now complete, he asks Raoul to take him home. But instead, his old friend (who knows him only too well) takes him to Monte Carlo and shows him a casino. His plan? Rob the casino, of course. But not of its money. It turns out this casino has recently purchased a large number of incredibly valuable paintings to decorate its walls and bring in rich clientele. However, none of the paintings on the walls are real; they're all fakes and forgeries (Bob spots this right away; he's an expert on fakes and forgeries). The real paintings are secretly hidden away in a nearby vault. A fool-proof security measure, the casino mangers think. And it would have been, except that Vladimir, the guy who designed the security system for the vault, has decided he wants some quick cash, and is offering to help Raoul and Bob find a way around his system and into the vault to get the real paintings.

At first Bob protests that he's retired, that he's not a thief anymore, but he's intrigued by the idea of the fake paintings in the casino and the real paintings in the vault, and is quickly convinced by Raoul that it's time for one last, grand heist. And Bob quickly formulates an extremely fitting plan--he'll orchestrate two heists, one real and one fake. The fake one will be going on in the casino, distracting the police from the real heist that's going on in the vault.

Of course, Roger figures something is up. He saves Said from extradition and a long prison sentence in return for the man's help in finally nailing Bob. But Bob is one step ahead of him (and remains at least one step ahead of pretty much everybody for the length of the film). In a very revealing moment, Bob points out that every heist has a rat; every Jesus has a Judas. So he makes room for a snitch in his plan from the beginning. When Said shows up, he quickly realizes that this is his snitch, and makes sure to keep his former dealer occupied and away from any of the important meetings about the real heist. It's almost as if Bob has read the script of the movie, or seen his share of heist movies, and knows what's going to happen next. So he plans the script of his heist around it.

Jordan is letting us see him play with the conventions of the heist genre. Already we have on stage the thief with a heart of gold, the policeman who is his old nemesis and old friend, the hooker with a heart of gold who loves the thief (because he saved her), the snitch, and the hotheaded young friend of the thief who could ruin everything (Paulo). Another conventional element in a movie of this type is the scene where the crack team of thieves is assembled, and Jordan treats us to this sequence next, introducing us to, among others, a bodybuilder who used to be named Philip, but has had an operation and is now named Philippa. Later Bob and his gang run into a pair of identical twins who are also planning to rob the casino--but they're after the money. Their plan involves pretending they are only one person (nobody in Monte Carlo knows there are two of them, as they have never appeared together). Bob pretends he wants in on their heist, but is really just planning to use it as a cover for his real heist--or is he? As in most heist movies, subplots begin to twist and turn around each other dizzyingly, and everything starts to spiral out of control. But in The Good Thief, all of the regular conventions are handled with expert and loving precision, and are also given an extra little twist that helps make them new again. And of course, as I've mentioned before, we are met at every turn with the theme of trickery, forgery, and fakery--these ideas saturate every level of the film. To keep Roger off his back, Bob pretends to be reforming and going to AA meetings. He tells Roger long convoluted stories about his mother and his past, none of which are true. The film ends with Bob and Anne walking off into the sunset together, telling these stories about themselves to each other. Bob is a storyteller, a liar, a faker, and Jordan loves him, and happily colludes in his lying and stealing, and in his ultimate triumph. Part of what makes this film so entertaining and fun is that it was made with such love for the genre, and such love for film in general.

Art is ultimately the act of making something real and true that is also, at the same time, false and made-up. The Good Thief is this, and is about this. It is a true delight.

My Poll Rating: Excellent


As I was walking home after The Good Thief, I thought, hey, that was a pretty early screening; it's only nine o'clock. I've got some time left to do something else tonight. Maybe Sarah and I can watch a movie... Wait, what am I saying?! Another movie?!

I realized then that I could easily just watch movies from morning till night and I'd be perfectly happy. Maybe I'd realized that before, but it really struck me just then. Maybe Jordan's love of film was so palpable in The Good Thief that it made me realize how much I really love film. I wish I could do what I'm doing now for a living--I wish I could just see movies and write about them. It's so much fun. Of course, I'd want a slightly less busy schedule than the one I've made for myself this week, but still.

Anyway, there's plenty more to go before I'm done; at this point I'm only about half way through the festival, and I've got a big day ahead of me tomorrow, with three more films!

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Jim Genzano

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