Heat

 
 

McCauley's Decision

Written by Michael Mann
1995

 

CONTEXT

Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is a professional thief. For two hours, we’ve watched him outwit police, cheat death, pull off one of the greatest heists in movie history, banter with Al Pacino… all while falling in love with a woman named Eady.

In this scene near the end of the movie, McCauley is driving to freedom with Eady at his side. His boss calls him, tells him he’s safe… then gives him the secret location of one loose end…

WHY IT’S BADASS

Out of context, this scene is simple. McCauley is driving with his girlfriend, learns of his enemies hideout, and turns around. But there’s something vital burning beneath the simplicity: a decision.

Whether you’re a novelist, screenwriter, director, or actor, show your audience the moment of decision.

It is this moment—more than any other scene in the movie—when the viewers has the most important questions going through their minds: What will McCauley do? Will he give up his life of crime, ignore the loose end, and escape with the girl? Or will he turn around, put himself in danger, and sacrifice his guaranteed freedom?

Can a career criminal like McCuley truly escape a life of crime?

We’re tapping our feet, holding our breath, screaming at the screen, pleading with the likable criminal to take the woman and run. Even the cinematography spurs the dilemma: just after McCauley says, “Home free,” white light bathes the frame. But it’s not enough.

When the moment of decision is done right, the actors barely need to act. The audience knows what’s brewing beneath the surface and their minds fill in the gaps. Out of context, De Niro’s performance is bland. He’s just a guy driving with a girl. But when we know the dilemma raging in his mind, his performance seems nuanced and every twitch of his eye shows the decision weighing him down.

There are at least twenty more memorable scenes in Heat. This one doesn’t have flashy acting. There’s no witty banter or awesome shootouts. Just drama.