Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay by: Ted Griffin
In most narrative structures for a film, there is a goal set out in early scenes that the characters have to complete by the end of the film or franchise. For some, it may be they are trying to get someone to fall in love with them, find their way home or complete a job. No matter what the goal may be, there is always a conflict that arises whether that is in the form of a villain or another roadblock that prevents the protagonist from being able to achieve their goal. The road to the goal often acts as a catalyst for the character’s development, too, bringing to light a flaw or weakness that is challenged during their journey in the film.
Ocean’s Eleven is a heist remake set in America, depicting the heist of Danny Ocean’s all-star team wherein they plan to rob $150,000,000 from three different casinos all owned by one man, Terry Benedict who just so happens to be dating Ocean’s ex-wife, Tess. With George Clooney at the helm of the heist team, accompanied by the likes of Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, the film was setup for success.
However, narratively, it makes an error – the error of convenience.
Just recently out of jail, Danny Ocean decides to get right back into the gangster-saddle and creates a plot to rob three of his ex-wife’s new boyfriend’s casinos. He bands together his team of eleven merry men that all are more than prepared to rob from the rich to give to the… slightly less rich. Aka, themselves. This is one of the first errors that Ocean’s Eleven has – in most stories, there is a clean cut line between the good guys and the bad guys. In this, the land between them seems rather fluid.
While it isn’t rare to be depicting the criminals as the lovable team that the audience should be rooting for, there is often more depth and motive presented to them rather than what is on the surface. Let’s look at another heist film to compare.
Christopher Nolan’s Inception is similar to Ocean’s Eleven in a number of ways even if the plot is completely different. The assembled team have one goal – to incept a thought into the mind of their target. While for the other members of the team, it may be solely about the money that they’ll receive for the task, for the protagonist Dom Cobb, the stakes are much higher. This job is the difference between him never being able to see his children again after the tragic loss of their mother. Automatically, this gives motive, stakes and consequences for their actions and makes the audience root for Dom even though what he is doing is questionable in terms of morality.
For Danny Ocean, there is no such sentimentality which would lean the audience towards wanting to let him win. Griffin tries to introduce it with Tess. Tess is Danny’s ex-wife and despite him saying time and time again that the heist isn’t about getting her back, that ends up being the outcome. However, there is no real reason for us to want Tess to be back with him. We aren’t ever truly given any deep insight into their relationship or any indication that Tess wants to get back with him in the first place. She treats him with a lot of animosity throughout and although she doesn’t seem happy with Terry Benedict, either, she doesn’t seem too unhappy.
Apart from the moment when he refuses to kiss her in front of the cameras and his general persona, we’re not given too much indication that their relationship is bad. While I’m not condoning gratuitous use or mention of abuse in relationships in film, we needed a bit more fuel to the fire that Tess was unhappy with Benedict or that she was ever happy with Ocean. There’s the moment at the end engineered by Ocean to show that Benedict doesn’t really care about her and would rather get what he wants and this seems to be the final straw for Tess.
But aside from making sure that Tess definitely sees what Benedict has to say, Ocean doesn’t do anything else to prove himself to her – he gets the money, he breaks up their relationship and then he goes to jail. Which seems to be the very reason she left him in the first place but for some reason this time, she’s okay with it. There would have been more stakes involved with the narrative if there was a character flaw that Ocean had to overcome in order to prove himself to Tess but he doesn’t – he just proves that he’s apparently ‘not as bad’ as Benedict. Oh, and he’s George Clooney.
While on the subject of stakes, this is where the error of convenience comes into play. Throughout the film, the audience are never presented with any reason that they could fail as every ‘obstacle’ that is raised to them has either been engineered by them from the start or they had already planned for it and are a few steps ahead. There are a few films that do this such as The Illusionist and the first scene of Inception but Ocean’s Eleven handles it in a clumsy, all-too-convenient way. The Illusionist explains at the end that there was no reason for the audience to be worried and that there were hints throughout that it was in hand. As for Inception, it introduces the ‘limbo’ ideal – that if one of the heist members were to die in a dream then they would be trapped. They then proved that stake by killing Saito.
But Ocean’s Eleven makes no effort to show this, thus leaving the audience with no real tension for any of the characters. While this makes for an easy watch, it inevitably makes it quite shallow and there’s no real sense of satisfaction at the end when they complete the heist. With just a little bit more character development, higher stakes and some more moments of tension, this convenient feel of the film could have been saved completely.
Please let me know in the comments what you think about Ocean’s Eleven and let me know what film you would like to see an analysis of next. Be sure to follow for more updates.