Frank (James Caan) has a dream. In that dream, Frank is rich and has a wife, children and a future that does not include going back to prison. Frank is a safe-cracker, and thus has a long way to go. Michael Mann’s Thief knows this world inside and out and manages to convincingly portray it through expert casting, strong performances, solid writing and brilliant craftsmanship (cinematography, music by Tangerine Dream, etc.).
The idea of instant family is prevalent in the film, first with Frank’s courtship of a waitress (Tuesday Weld) who he has (it seems) barely spoken more than two words to and yet to whom he is getting married by the halfway point (with little to no jumps in timeline), and then with another form of family. One can’t be certain when the concept of father figures in crime films came into being (albeit the idea of “crime family” goes back a long time) but Frank is blessed with two – his incarcerated and dying mentor (Willie Nelson) and his new business partner Leo (Robert Prosky, chilling and disarmingly charming at once). Unfortunately, it is his newest business partner who poses the greatest risk to his well-being.
Thusly Frank, Mann’s “hero”, goes “against the family.” There is the idea of the lone wolf going against the grain of the corporation, or of the individual fighting against being a cog in the machine, but the idea of a criminal “going against the family” is nothing new – from The Godfather to GoodFellas, Casino and The Sopranos, the notion of criminal enterprise being a family business and of private contractors (such as Frank) being folded into the “family” has existed for a long time.
This notion of criminality as a means to family is underlined by Frank’s pursuit of the waitress (Weld), whom he makes his wife, and buys not only a house and (I believe) a car but also a child! BOOM! Instant family! However, a family is only as solid as its foundation and Frank’s foundation of criminality is roughly as sturdy as a sandcastle as they come.
Ultimately, however, it is not simply Frank’s criminality that causes his aspirations to domesticity to crumble like so much wet sand, but rather the associations he’s made with Leo and company. Frank could likely have made a go of being a family man and a criminal for a while had his mob ties not been so volatile. However, he is a go against the grain type of guy, and so he cannot continue working for Leo – which ultimately means not only Leo’s end but the end of Frank’s domestic life.
Mann seems to be suggesting that if domesticity itself is unattainable because of the criminal enterprises of those characters who seek it, the notion of a crime family is equally hazardous because ultimately the individual can only trust himself. But where does this leave the real family?