Knowing Masculinity in Oceans Eleven (2001)

By James Cateridge

During the climax of heist movie Oceans Eleven (2001), Daniel Ocean (George Clooney) discovers that he has won both the glittering prizes he was aiming for: $162 million (split 11 ways) and his ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts). He’s being led away by the police, which is perversely another victory because it forms part of his alibi, and Tess runs towards him looking every inch the trophy wife in sparkling evening dress and heels. She calls, ‘Wait . . . wait . . . That’s my husband.’ Danny just grins and softly growls, ‘Tess . . . I told you. I knew what I was doing.’

Through its driving force of Danny, Oceans Eleven offers a fantasy of masculinity: supremely confident, capable and smart. Despite Danny’s claim that the job will be ‘highly lucrative and highly dangerous’, the film involves relatively little physical danger. Compare this to other movies about groups of men doing dangerous jobs, such as Reservoir Dogs (1992), which is structured around one of its central characters slowly bleeding to death. Clearly, Oceans Eleven is employing a different aspect of masculinity that favours brains over brawn, technology over brute force, control over chaos.

Consider how Danny’s control over the narrative even bleeds into its visual style. Oceans Eleven is notable for a high concentration of montage sequences, where real time passing is compressed and often accompanied by music. An interesting example occurs when the team first hears Danny’s plans. Danny’s voice-over states ‘Alright, here’s where we begin . . .’ and the film launches into a section of screen time that lasts for only two and a half minutes but accomplishes a large amount of narrative work.

During the montage sequence you see different members of Danny’s team at work gathering information, using technology and beginning to act. Crucially, all this action occurs in the wake of Danny’s commands on the voice-over. In other words it collapses the time between the planning and its execution in such a way as to prove Danny’s effortless control over the situation, particularly over the flow of information and its consequences. Therefore, the fact that Danny knows what he’s doing takes on an additional meaning: he’s not just confident of his ability but in full command of all the relevant information.

When a film is saying something about men, it’s often implying something about women. At the film’s climax, Tess replies to Danny’s ‘I knew what I was doing’ with a succinct ‘I didn’t’ – an almost too obvious statement of her powerlessness within the narrative. Her status as a possession is knowingly pointed out several times. For example, during the final scene Rusty (Brad Pitt) refers to her as Danny’s ‘personal effects’. Of course some irony is involved here, but if you consider that the only other women the film represents are waitresses or exotic dancers, Rusty’s remark starts to sound more like a clear statement of fact than a joke.