top of page

Help, I Can't Stop Watching Heist Movies

On Covid and Comfort Food

I sat through the entirety of "Now You See Me" for Daniel Radcliffe only to find out he's in the sequel.

Quarantine turned my friend Gigi into a baker.

It started innocently enough; a brownie here, a cupcake there. But as the pandemic raged on, her projects got more and more intricate. Her process refined, her pastries became flakier and prettier. For a while there, Gigi was baking obsessively; when she crashed her car last summer, the one ride she really, truly needed was to the local independent bookstore to pick up the cookbook she’d ordered. At one point, when a professor asked us to voice our concerns about her class and we all brought up our inability to focus on work during COVID, Gigi said, “I literally can’t do anything except bake and smoke weed.” By that point, she’d taken to sending voice memos instead of texts, because apparently her fingers hurt from doing too much icing.

I admire her commitment to the craft. I’ve never been much of a baker myself. I’m a good cook, but I cook intuitively, usually improvising, without recipes and guard-rails. It’s a beauty and a curse that I can never recreate my own work exactly; once a dish has been eaten, that’s it, goodbye, it’s gone. Baking is about exact measurements. It’s chemistry as much as it is art. And I, the changing, savory thing that I am, am simply not made for it.

If I can’t quite relate to Gigi’s passion for baking, I do understand the draw, and I understand why she was so very invested in it at the peak of the pandemic. The very thing that has always irked me about baking is precisely what draws her in: the recipe. After all, right now, who doesn’t want a recipe?

When the world feels so hopelessly topsy-turvy, there is something beautiful in the dependability of a recipe. A recipe gifts unto us consistency; it draws us a route to goodness and satisfaction. It is duplicatable, shareable, contagious in the right way. The recipe literally and spiritually feeds us. When we can’t be sure what tomorrow brings, at least we can be certain that the right combination of egg whites and sugar will make a perfect, peaking meringue.

You see, I understand the appeal. And I happily leave Gigi to her cakes, accept her deliveries of plastic-wrapped brownies and loafs. I herald their arrival; give them the proper welcome they deserve, with a glass of wine and a dollop of ice cream on the side.

But it isn’t cookies or cupcakes that have comforted me these long, intangible months.

The recipe I find myself returning to again and again is just as sweet, its formula concrete, winning. It’s just that, instead of brown sugar and cinnamon, it usually involves a criminal mastermind, a code-breaker, and a martial artist.

I can’t stop devouring heists.

It’s not my fault: it started with a TikTok. Well, a bunch of TikToks, actually. The app’s algorithm knows an uncomfortably lot about me. It keeps hitting me with videos about doctoral programs, jokes about obscure historical trivia. It keeps hitting me with uncomfortably specific videos about playing the Sims approximately one time a year and for 10 consecutive hours. It keeps hitting me, again and again, with BookTok.

BookTok is — you guessed it — the book side of TikTok. Like BookTube before it, it’s a world dominated by teens, and thus a world dominated by YA fiction. I myself am not above a good young adult novel or two; like romance novels, they function as a kind of mental cotton candy, fluff that may not sate me completely but certainly brings me joy. And as a PhD student in English, I’m plenty sated by the literature of my day job; I spend my days feasting on the succulence of Barthes, on O’Connor’s dry, acidic prose, on the robust textures of Jane Eyre. So in my off-time, I gravitate toward the formulaic: the romance, the cozy mystery, the hero quest. Let me turn my brain off. Give me a treat.

BookTok is great for recommendations like this; it’s full of people like me, including teens like the one I used to be, talking about the books they love with the endearing earnestness that only teen girls can pull off.

Spend long enough on this side of the app, though, and you start to see the patterns emerging. The same books are recommended again and again. Sarah J. Maas, for some reason, is BookTok’s patron saint. They love E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars. Plenty of books have become best-sellers largely because of BookTok; while I love Emily Henry’s romances, it’s undeniable that much of their success can be attributed to the app. Romance and YA and fantasy all have a large presence on BookTok, and not every recommendation is an artfully crafted novel.

Every once in a while, though, a book breaks through that is really and truly extraordinary.

Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows is like that.

The premise of Six of Crows is simple enough: what if Ocean’s Eleven, but with magic? If that’s not a winning formula, I don’t know what is. And BookTok’s hottest club has everything. A first-act prison break. An enormous cash haul. A tiny acrobatic assassin who carries around blades named after saints and says cryptic things like “Men mock the gods until they need them.” It’s an absolute romp of a book. I gobbled it up in three days and followed with its hefty sequel Crooked Kingdom for dessert. Literally every person I know who’s read it has said the same thing, and it’s “Goddamn, this book is good.”

Six of Crows was a lesson in world-building, and character, and writing twisting, interlocking timelines. Bardugo’s plotting is air-tight but her prose is fluffy and rich, an extravagance. It flits between six characters' perspectives, weaving their stories together as they undertake a dangerous heist for, you guessed it, a life-changing amount of money. Despite being part of a pre-existing series, the text trusts that newcomers like myself will eventually grasp the thread, and it’s right. It’s a well-written book, a real masterclass in fantasy.

More importantly: it reminded me that I like heists.

Like, really, really like heists.

Danny would never have gone to prison in the first place if I'd been there instead of Brad.

So when my boyfriend plopped down beside me the next weekend with a Gigi-brand brownie and said, “What do you want to watch tonight?” I think we all know what I said. After all, what would you say?

There’s only one answer, and it’s Ocean’s Eleven.

Ocean’s Eleven eventually led to Logan Lucky, which led to Widows, which led to Inside Man. We watched a Thai film called Bad Genius. I went so far as to watch both Now You See Me and Now You See Me 2, films I have openly mocked in the past. I even considered rewatching Ocean’s 8, which I maintain was actually quite fun and would have been received much more generously had it not suffered from explicit, self-inflicted comparison to its predecessors.

Heists largely follow the same format. There’s a brilliant leader, a charismatic schmoozer, a hermit hacker. There’s a thief and a getaway driver. There’s a Macguffin of some sort, a vaunted art piece or a fortune or a crucial international prisoner. There’s music that rips off the Mission: Impossible theme just enough to avoid a lawsuit. Everyone wears black and whispers a lot, except when they’re suddenly yelling instead.

But this is precisely what I love about heists. It’s much the same as what I love about romances, or sports documentaries. I love that structure. And I love figuring out how the artist will subvert it.

Heist films are far removed from reality, nearly to the point of fantasy. In real life, Danny Ocean’s men don’t send his wife who looks mysteriously like Julia Roberts into the museum to distract the guards; instead, they pull a gun on the security guy at the desk and spend an hour in the Gardner museum cutting masterpieces from their frames. Real life heists are far messier than the movies, and rarely does the mastermind look like George Clooney.

There is a sense of comfort to the heist. There is a familiarity with tropes and a gratitude for the clear stakes of the story: life or death, wealth or poverty, freedom or prison. Such intelligible stakes feel reassuring in an environment where I’m not sure of the full importance of my wearing a mask, or recycling my plastics, or erroneously recycling the wrong plastics. What happens if I do? What happens if I don’t? And how much of it is my fault?

There’s also a familiarity with the antagonists of any given heist. We love a good underdog, have since David and Goliath. But we live in a democracy where the person who wins the most votes isn’t always guaranteed to win. Where the biggest corporations are belching greenhouse gases into the air and endangering an entire planet. Where 1% of the population hoards 99% of the wealth. Every day I feel more increasingly impotent.

Heists are almost always a kind of Robin Hood story. Steal from the rich and give to the poor. The bad guys are the ones with the money, the jewels, the treasure. Heist content gives us permission to root for the little guy, and reminds us that it’s possible for the underdog to win if only we just have enough verve and nerve. It’s reassuring, really.

I don’t think I’m the only person for whom this is true. Bardugo’s Grishaverse series, of which Six of Crows is a part, was one of Netflix’s most-watched shows in 2021, at least in part because the creators rightly combined the author’s lesser first trilogy with the Crows duology. The Crows books reascended the NYT charts, and as it did so, Grace D. Li’s heist debut, Portrait of a Thief, was backordered from book suppliers across the Internet. And back in the streaming realm, Lupin was also one of Netflix’s biggest pandemic hits, a series that revolves around an initial failed heist and the grudge that lies beneath it.

A photo of Daniel Craig scolding Channing Tatum and Adam Driver should be enough to sell you on "Logan Lucky."

We’re two years into this pandemic. Things are getting better, of course; we have a vaccine, we have treatments. I see far fewer people wearing masks. But the numbers still fluctuate, and new variants continue to mutate, and deaths have not halted.

Perhaps, through these 28 months of paranoia and novelty, through a pandemic and an insurrection and two whole Taylor Swift albums, we have grown tired of the roller coaster of newness and news. And in times of hardship, we crave the familiar.

That’s why the glorious affability of Ted Lasso captured so many hearts, why we scarfed Bridgerton’s sexy fake-dating formula, why the Twilight re-telling Midnight Sun sold a million copies in its first week despite being a story we all already know. Hell, maybe it’s even why we elected Joe “watch me fist-bump Barack Obama” Biden. When uncertainty reigns, it’s only natural that we revert to known entities, to the things we already know we trust.

It’s why the ice cream shop always has extra cookies and cream ready to go. There is comfort in the familiar.

It’s why I’ve turned to these movies and novels, why Gigi has dog-eared a library’s worth of cookbooks.

We may not know what tomorrow will bring, what the next variant is or what the state of our union will be after November. We may feel stuck in a labyrinth of pain and suffering and record heat waves. But at least we can feel safe in knowing that Danny Ocean will drive away in a convertible with the top down. At least we can have someone on TikTok hold our hand through tempering chocolate for our latest ganache, and, if only for a few hours, that can be enough.


bottom of page