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I Don’t Know How to Do Anything Else

Robert De Niro | art by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

During the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood press tour, Margot Robbie revealed her grand plan to frustrate the world at large by refusing to ever watch any of the Star Wars films. Important representation for me, a contrarian nightmare who physically cannot do something someone has told her she has to do, including but not limited to watching a beloved movie. But where most of my defiance is just that, when I ignore a movie recommendation, the impulse is a little more complicated. I fear I’ll have to tell someone I love that I hate something they love, or that their thoughtful perceptions of what I might love are, in fact, wildly off-base. (Could I prevent this situation by keeping my dislike to myself? Don’t be ridiculous.) 

I know that this is irrational, self-sabotaging behavior. I’ve never seen The Wizard of Oz or The Sound of Music simply because my godmother keeps telling me I must; once a critical mass of my peers became obsessed with the Lord of the Rings series, I had to make peace with the fact that I would never watch it. And because I am a Film Bro™ who is friends with many other Film Bros™, I avoided both Heat and Jackie Brown until 2019. Again: I recognize that this is irrational self-sabotage. It is, in this case, especially irrational behavior given that my number-one all-time celebrity crush is mid-‘90s Robert De Niro. 

Even if your lizard brain doesn’t run along the same bizarre tracks as mine (and for your sake, I hope it doesn’t), it’s hard to deny the appeal of this particular actor in these particular roles at this particular time. While this is not a hard-and-fast temporal taxonomy, his performances in films like Jackie Brown and Heat feel like a bridge between his previous slate of terrifying sociopaths and the intimidating-but-secretly-warm patriarchs to come. Though they approach the quandary with fundamentally different energy, both Heat’s Neil McCauley and Jackie Brown’s Louis Gara both navigate a context that’s evolving in a way that might not leave room for someone like them. They’re working to figure out how long they can keep going in the way they’ve been going all this time, and testing the possibilities of what might happen if they can’t figure out a different way to be. And it feels, often, like De Niro is working through them to figure that out for himself. Which makes for a compelling viewing experience—not least of all because self awareness, like any other scarce resource, is insanely desirable. 

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Heat is basically Killing Eve for dads. But where Killing Eve is a test of how far two easily bored people will go to satisfy their desire for chaos, Heat is a study in what happens when the airtight routines of two creatures of habit brush up against each other, forcing them to decide whether they’d rather change their ways or simply die instead. It’s a testament to its craft that the film makes heists, investigations, and chases thrilling for the viewer while also conveying how rote they are to the people working them, that it manages to draw so much tension out of the shared fastidiousness and workaholism that make Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) a perfect foil for Neil. 

Many cat-and-mouse narratives drive tension by signposting how wildly different the two characters are. But Heat leans into the reality that coming into contact with a person who’s too much like you is far more disorienting and infuriating than squaring off against someone with whom you have nothing in common. Part of the struggle of too much similarity is the horror of seeing your own flaws mirrored in someone else’s behavior, but most of it is the horror of being understood by your mirror in return. The similarities between Neil and Vincent inspire a fear of being defeated—but that fear of defeat can’t possibly be separated out from the horror of being known for the first time. The central question of the movie is “what’s scarier: genuine human intimacy or the law?” The twist is that they prove to be one and the same. 

No other relationship in the film comes close to the level of understanding these two share. They know each other far better than their closest colleagues or the women in their lives ever could. That is the full list of people who could possibly know them well; neither appears to have parents or siblings or friends outside of work. They are both solitary creatures—by design, of course, but I think loneliness influences their reluctant bond with one another as much as their begrudging respect for a person with an identical orientation to the world. 

Although those two factors are hard to distinguish from one another. The core of Vince and Neil’s commonalities is their obsessive maintenance of firm boundaries between each area of their lives—an inherently lonely way of being. There’s not a scarcity of media narratives about the compartmentalization habits of not-particularly-admirable men, but where most of those characters are caught up in the struggle of keeping the discrete parts of their lives from leaking into one another, these two have that challenge long mastered. It’s just that it’s not a sustainable way to live anymore, and it’s not sustainable because they’ve come into contact with each other. 

During the diner scene (which is, I can now confirm, one of the few pop culture moments that’s even more incredible than it’s built up to be), they lament the fact that they can’t figure out how to pivot to normal-man activities like “barbecues and ball games”—normal human commitments to other normal human people—and aren’t sure they want to. But Vincent ultimately survives because he’s the one who evolves. After years of holding his wife Justine (Diane Venora) and stepdaughter Lauren (Natalie Portman) at a distance, he prioritizes them over himself. Neil can’t change, can’t extend the openness he finds with Vincent to his kind, morally upstanding girlfriend/knitwear icon Eady (Amy Brenneman)—and there isn’t really a moment at which I believed that he would. It’s not that he doesn’t consider the possibility at all; it’s that he does, and decides he’d rather see how much longer he can cling to what’s comfortable.

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Jackie Brown is, as far as Tarantino narrative structure goes, fairly straightforward. Aside from a little bit of Rashomon action in the second half, things happen in a linear order; there are neither flashbacks nor leaps into the future. But thematically, it’s one of his most time-obsessed works (tied for first, I’d argue, with the aforementioned Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). It’s a story that takes shape in a world populated entirely by people who fear that their window for self-improvement is closing, that they’re never going to transcend their pasts.  

The film feels unbound by linear time in spite of its (relative) linearity, and its precarious relationship to the concept of progress is the source of both its most comforting and most unsettling moments. When Jackie (Pam Grier) says, “I always feel like I’m starting over,” she sounds hopeful and exhausted in equal measure. The good news is that there’s always an opening to reattempt becoming your ideal self; the bad news is that your less-than-ideal past can always return to you. 

When you watch Jackie Brown now—in a year when people generally don’t call one another on landlines, watch VHS tapes, or smoke cigarettes at the mall food court—those contextual details amplify the sensation that the rules of sequential time don’t matter. Most of these details might have felt unremarkable at the time, but the movie acknowledges that they wouldn’t feel that way forever. Moments are nostalgic for the present, acutely aware of their own temporariness, like when Jackie and Max (Robert Forster) debate whether she should convert her record collection to CDs—which sets up one of the most romantic moments in all of cinema, in which Max buys a cassette tape of the album in question.. These moments are fleeting, not only because the future is always looming, but also because our histories are always catching up to us. 

That convergence of past, present, and future is especially potent for Louis (De Niro), who’s just wrapped up a prison sentence for robbery and is trying to catch up on what he missed during the last 20 years. Unacquainted with the world he now finds himself in, he walks around in a state of constant, low-grade mystification, bewildered by simple things like remote-entry car keys, fashion trends, and his declining ability to take massive bong rips. He is not unlike my best friend, who is not a convicted felon but did recently finish medical school and, as a result, now has a habit of texting me things like, “Have you heard of Magic Mike? Pretty good movie!” 

That is to say: Louis’ re-entry into mainstream society feels low stakes and kind of sweet at first, especially because De Niro plays it with childlike wonder. He imbues this quiet, lackadaisical, unfashionable degenerate with the energy of a newborn baby just learning to walk as he navigates a new context that’s both exciting and terrifying. But because it’s De Niro, you expect something else to reveal itself—you’re always trying to locate some intensity running beneath the confusion and awe, some terror lurking behind the laid-back exterior. 

That reveal, though it feels inevitable, is postponed for so long,  and escalates so rapidly, that by the time it arrives, it’s a genuine surprise. When he and Melanie (Bridget Fonda) go to the mall to pick up the smuggled cash that Jackie’s handing off to them to hand off to Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson), Louis’ disorientation goes from charming to dangerous; his ability to acclimate becomes a very real matter of life-or-death. After a chaotic journey to the fitting room to retrieve some, but not all of the money, Louis and Melanie wander the parking lot in search of their car, he silent and surly while she harps on his inability to remember where they parked. (Could all the weed be a factor in this short-term memory loss? Who can say, really?) It’s funny, these two mismatched, washed weirdos fumbling the easiest part of an elaborate crime—until, in a surge of frustration, he shoots her dead.  

The murder isn’t a matter of whether a hardened criminal can or cannot be rehabilitated; it is very much a personal problem. Louis lashes out not because Melanie’s irritating him in a general sense, but because she’s irritating him by lording his past over him: “When you robbed banks, did you have to look for your car then, too?” is the moment that sends him over the edge. He knows the impulse is shameful, though, and he excludes the exact details of how Melanie irritated him when he justifies his actions to Ordell—not that it makes a difference in the end.

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Can people change? functions as a catch-all bin for all the questions about the human capacity for growth that we don’t want to verbalize with too much specificity. What can I do to make another person change in the exact way I, personally, would like them to? would be the more accurate translation in most situations. But, How will a person change when they’re in a position in which they have to? is one of the more compelling precise questions concealed within that uselessly broad one, and it’s mesmerizing to watch someone try to answer it on screen.  

The mid-‘90s didn’t mark the end of an era for characters who stare down that question. They’re alive and well, especially on television, which sometimes feels like it’s exclusively populated by men who are grappling with the possibility of trying to become less horrible and/or trying to maintain a firmer boundary between the horrible and respectable parts of themselves—some more effectively than others. 

Still, it’s rare to see an actor wrestle with the question of whether and how to approach mandatory change on a fictional-character and real-world-image level at the same time, and even rarer to watch them muddle through that transitional state across multiple projects. (I mean, it’s not really a possibility for women, who go directly from playing high schoolers to 45-year-olds, if the industry lets their careers stretch out that long.) But it’s a question we all wrestle with repeatedly in our own lives. 

Because it’s terrifying every time—even when we’ve made it through before and know we’ll make it through again—it’s thrilling to watch someone else face the same dilemma. And because it’s painful every time—even when we know that it’s for the best, that the things we’re being forced to leave behind aren’t serving us anymore—it’s even more thrilling to live vicariously through someone who’s evaluated the possibility of personal progress and reached the decisive conclusion they’d rather not.