Movies have always found drama in thievery. From early silent films like The Great Train Robbery (1903), 1960s classics like The Italian Job (1969) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967), to last year’s Logan Lucky and Baby Driver, the heist has been a reliably crowd-pleasing genre. Audiences clearly find pleasure in watching colorful bands of criminals elaborately break the Bible’s eighth commandment: “You shall not steal” (Ex. 20:15). But why?
Is it because we thrill at watching renegade outlaws triumph over “the man” (whether represented by a bank or greedy politician or corrupt casino owner) in a sort of twisted expression of justice? Perhaps the thrill of watching brazen acts of thievery distracts us from the ways we are all subtly breaking the eighth commandment—if not as outright thieves then as greedy hoarders and ungenerous stooges. After all, as Kevin DeYoung writes in his new book on The Ten Commandments, the eighth commandment “enjoins us not only to refrain from taking things but to have a spirit of generosity, so that we love to give things and help those in need.”
Audiences clearly find pleasure in watching colorful bands of criminals elaborately break the Bible’s eighth commandment: ‘You shall not steal.’ But why?
Whatever the reasons, Hollywood keeps churning out films that mine drama from the transgression of “you shall not steal.” Four of the most acclaimed 2018 films, for example, take thievery as inspiration: American Animals, The Old Man and the Gun, Widows, and Shoplifters. Each approaches the topic from a different angle; each evaluates the morality of its thief characters in a distinct way. By briefly considering these four films in light of the eighth commandment, we observe interesting dynamics not only about the nature of theft, but also the nature of our society.
American Animals is the only one that unequivocally disapproves of the actions of its thief protagonists (which is not to say it doesn’t try to understand them). The film, directed by British documentary filmmaker Bart Layton (The Imposter), is part documentary, part live-action drama. It tells the wild true story of four college-aged men in Kentucky who, in 2004, attempted to execute an outlandish heist from a rare-books library at Transylvania University. The film goes back and forth between actors (Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Jared Abrahamson, and Blake Jenner) dramatizing the heist, and the real perpetrators reflecting to the camera about how they did it, and why.
And why is a fascinating question. These were suburban, middle-class boys with no need for what they were attempting to steal. The value of what they sought to steal was beside the point. By the end of the film it becomes clear their motives were largely driven by boredom, wanting to transcend the humdrum of their lives by doing something—something Oceans 11-esque!—that would make their lives noteworthy.
Life imitating art is a real dynamic for these boys, as it is for the film itself (which opts for actors and thrilling heist tropes rather than a straightforward documentary). The “heist cool” of movie mythology drives these boys, as does—the film suggests in its title—a more primal masculine need for danger and risk. For the boys of American Animals, the safe domesticity of suburban life is stifling. Even if their movie-like heist resulted in prison (as it did), it would be worth it, they assumed. They did something. They’re famous. Hollywood actors are playing them in an acclaimed movie. Like the affluent thieves of Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013), the privileged boys of American Animals are greedy not for possessions so much as celebrity and thrill. This type of privileged greed makes these boys an easier target than other, more utilitarian types of thieves (see Shoplifters and Widows below), but it’s a type of greed we can see in ourselves. In this world of spotlight-grabbing, platform-building, “like my photo!” online busking, the siren song of celebrity can be a potent motivator for all manner of transgression.
The Old Man and the Gun
Like American Animals, David Lowery’s The Old Man and the Gun is based on a true story. Robert Redford (in what’s touted as his final film performance) plays Forrest Tucker, a career criminal who robbed countless banks—and escaped prison countless times—over seven decades. Also like American Animals, Lowery’s film offers a meta reflection on the glamorization of thievery in pop culture. The casting of Redford, whose screen career includes several iconic thief/outlaw performances (e.g., Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting), underscores this point. Fittingly for Redford, his final starring role is that of a genteel, ever-so-cool thief whose hat tip and smiley wink warms the hearts of audiences as much as it does the bank managers he holds up at gunpoint.
The Old Man and the Gun is largely ambivalent about the morality of theft, which functions in the film mostly as a fun genre motif. Similar to American Animals, theft is committed mostly for the pleasure and fame (or infamy) it brings. Tonally, the film is lighthearted and fun; more poetic than pulpy. It’s a cops-and-robbers story (Casey Affleck plays the cop) in which the cop and robber have mutual affection; so joyful are they about pursuing and evading each other that neither wants the drama to end. The movie is less a morality tale than an homage to cinema itself. With its grainy film stock and vintage sepia palette, the film’s 1970s aesthetic reinforces its reflexive nostalgia.
As a love letter to Redford and the heist genre, Old Man is certainly delightful. But the film is problematic in how casually it treats the (serious) criminality of its hero. Portrayed mostly as an upstanding business man (whose business happens to be bank robbery), Redford’s character is only critiqued by the film in a brief scene where we meet a daughter (Elisabeth Moss) he never knew. Here the film hints at the tragic collateral damage and relational fallout of individual sin. Theft (like any sin) is never only consequential for the thief. Sin is less like a bullet and more like a bomb. There are victims all around, countless lives affected by it—a reality largely unacknowledged and unseen in this film.
Sin is less like a bullet and more like a bomb. There are victims all around, countless lives affected by it.
The collateral damage of breaking the eighth commandment is powerfully seen in Widows, a visceral and violent (rated R) new film from Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave). Set in contemporary Chicago, Widows has a twist-heavy plot that follows three women (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Debicki) who are widowed after their thief husbands die in a heist gone bad. Their deaths leave the women shackled with massive debts to deadly mobsters. In a sad perversion of the biblical emphasis on caring for widows in their vulnerable state (e.g. James 1:27), in this film the widows are forced to look out for themselves. In order to come up with the money to pay the debt (and threatened if they go to the police), they decide their only option is to carry out their own heist, based on plans their husbands left behind.
Sin begets sin; thievery begets thievery. That’s one theme of Widows, a film about systemic and cyclical sin. As much about class, race, politics, and privilege as it is about heists, Widows presents a fallen world where thievery is just part of life; everyone is stealing or having something stolen. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and survival means being the last one with the power or the money. Seething with rage from our #MeToo moment (each of the women is abused or exploited by men at some point in the film), #BlackLivesMatter, and driven by the logic of intersectionality, the film presents the band of widows as heroines—their heist justified by the personal and systemic oppression that has left them vulnerable. The money they steal is dirty money, to be sure, and the person they steal it from had stolen it from others himself. But does that justify the women stealing it too? Doesn’t the money belong to somebody who actually earned it?
Sin begets sin; thievery begets thievery.
Widows presents a depressing world where almost no one keeps the eighth commandment. It’s a dog-eat-dog world where greed and self-interest dominate; where the powerful feel entitled to take whatever they want, whether money or land or sexualized bodies. All the victimized can do—the film suggests in brazenly Marxist terms—is fight fire with fire, stealing back what has been stolen from them.
Perhaps the most critically beloved film of these four, Shoplifters (directed by acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda) tells the story of a nontraditional family of six in contemporary Japan. They are nontraditional in various ways revealed as the film progresses, but chiefly because they are all thieves. Throughout the film we see members of the family steal everything from shampoo and fishing poles to Pachinko balls for slot machines. The thievery of the family also extends to people. Early in the film they kidnap a young girl whom they soon enlist in their family’s shoplifting schemes.
Kore-eda is less interested in judging this family for their thievery (among other sins) than he is in examining their humanity and empathizing with their working-class plight. His camera tenderly captures them watching fireworks, playing at the beach, slurping noodles together, delighting in one another amidst difficult circumstances. Their shoplifting ways are presented as just one among many quotidian realities of their existence. Impoverished and living together in cramped, squalid quarters, many in the family have blue-collar jobs, but apparently they don’t pay enough to make ends meet. To be sure, Kore-eda does not excuse their criminal choices. The family’s moral justifications for their theft (“Whatever’s in a store doesn’t belong to anyone yet.” . . . “As long as the store doesn’t go bankrupt.”) are not convincing, and it takes a child in the family—Shota (Jyo Kairi), forced into shoplifting from a young age—to raise conscience concerns. “Don’t these belong to someone?” he asks his dad (Lily Franky) as he is about to break a car window to steal something inside.
By the end of Shoplifters—which won the top prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival—the family of thieves do face justice for their sinful actions. But the film remains mostly sympathetic to them, faulting the system that produced them as much as their own individual bad choices. In this way Shoplifters, like the other three films to various degrees, reflects the zeitgeist—where personal culpability for sin is far less discussed than systemic culpability.
Whatever the situational motivations that give rise to it—boredom, glory, debts, poverty—to steal is ultimately to take what doesn’t belong to you. It’s an individual choice to take a shortcut: to get instantly what might be earned through slower-yet-honest work.
“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor,” Paul writes in Ephesians 4:28, “doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”
The flipside of thievery is generosity. The former is a self-centered act with little concern for those hurt along the way. The latter is a selfless act, giving away what has been rightfully earned. In contrast to the dark, dog-eat-dog kingdoms of earth illustrated in these four films, the kingdom of God is one of radical generosity, driven by the conviction that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15) and that the tangible-but-fragile treasures of this world pale in comparison to treasures in heaven, “where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt 6:20).