Male loneliness in the film Heat.

Eady: You travel a lot?
Neil: Yeah.
Eady: Travelling makes you lonely?
Neil: I’m alone. I am not lonely.

This conversation is from the 1995 crime film Heat[1]. In this scene criminal ringleader Neil McCauley is spending the night with Eady, at her home on the hills overlooking Los Angeles.

Neil’s life up to this point is mirrored in his residence. He has a modernist beachfront home that is devoid of any signs of domesticity. In one scene that takes place in this space Neil comes home to find fellow crew member Chris, hung-over and sleeping on the floor, following a fight with his wife Charlene.  The two men have a conversation in which Neil voices his concerns about Chris’s relationship by reminding him of a former prison inmates life philosophy that you must “have no attachments, allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner.”  Chris in contrast openly declares his attachment to Charlene by saying “for me the sun rises and sets with her”. Unlike Neil Chris is able to acknowledge the conflicting demands of crime and intimate relationship.

For Neil the criminal code of non-attachment is a reflection of his discipline and professionalism. But the unconscious aspect of this demand appears in Neil’s dream in which he is drowning. Neil interprets this dream as a fear of not having enough time to complete his crimes. Another interpretation may be that he will drown in his desire for connection if he acknowledges its existence.

Neil is a phantom figure that survives by remaining invisible. Eady represents a normal life that exists in the open above ground.  In response to his idealisation of Eady Neil constructs an equally fantastic escape plan. After only two encounters he asks Eady to move with him to New Zealand. Eady is an independent, educated, and creative woman. She understandably raises concerns about having only just met, and also wonders about Neil’s marital status. To this Neil replies, “ I’m a needle starting at zero, going the other way, a double blank.” Neil’s internal blankness leaves him terrified, and unable to face it alone. He becomes childlike, pleading with Eady to come with him, saying  “All I know is there’s no point me going anywhere anymore…if it’s going to be alone…without you.” Neil’s emptiness somehow reassures Eady, and she responds by becoming a vacuous object into which Neil can project the unconscious aspects of his loneliness.

Vincent Hannah is the detective hunting Neil and his crew. Vincent is superficially on the side of light and relationship. He is the ringmaster of his own gang of police officers. Unlike Neil he is not alone, and appears to not be lonely. Yet at every opportunity of connection with his wife Vincent distances himself with work. He justifies his non-commitment by telling her that he must “ hold onto my angst, I preserve it, cause I need it, it keeps me sharp, on the edge, where I gotta be.”  This distance in part signifies an inability in Vincent to commit to intimate relationship, fearful it would soften him, make him weak, and impact his capacity to deal with the daily horror of his work.

Vincent’s reluctance to engage with his wife, and his preoccupation with work, results in his libidinal energy being redirected towards Neil.  Vincent admires Neil’s ability to endure the suffering and isolation of time spent in the “hole” during his prison sentence. This capacity in Neil has an ascetic quality, as evidenced by Vincent’s question to him in the cafe scene where he asks if he is a “monk.” It also has associations to the feminine, and perhaps fits with Neil’s subterranean habitation within the prison, and the city. Vincent on the other hand resides in the masculine realm of the mind, best symbolised by his use of a helicopter to pursue Neil who is driving on the freeway.

Both men are completely devoted to their work, which Lindstrom[2] suggests, “excludes any emotional life outside the demands of the job.” Yet it also appears that each man endeavours to meet his emotional needs through work. They find in the other a mirror of the disavowed aspects of their personalities. While Neil attempts to bond with Eady, he is ultimately attached to Vincent, who understands his life, and attends to his death wish in the manner of a good parent, even going so far as to hold his hand when he is dying.

Vincent holds Neil's hand in the final scene of the movie Heat

Neil’s preference for death over the demands of a relationship is the ultimate gesture of loneliness, but one that makes sense if we follow the thinking of Fromm-Reichmann[3], who claims that we will do almost anything to avoid the frightening and painful experience of loneliness. The origins of this terror according to Fromm-Reichmann begin early in life, during which time the child’s instinctive need for human contact is prematurely frustrated by their primary caregiver. We can see this in Neil’s parental history, when he tells Eady – perhaps to limit her questioning – that his mother died long ago, his father’s whereabouts is unknown, and he has a brother somewhere. While this story is most likely a ruse, there is a good chance that Neil experienced a family system that was fractured, violent, and emotionally inconsistent. Neil’s capacity to tolerate isolation and deprivation may ensure his survival in the present, but it owes a substantial debt, which he paid for in the trauma of his childhood.

[3] Fromm-Reichmann, F. (1990). Loneliness. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 26(2), 305-330.


Beyond Thames Street 25th anniversary

Beyond Thames Street is a documentary project on Morrinsville, which I co-photographed with Phil Crawford. The photographs are in the permanent collection of the Waikato Museum. The project was completed 25 years ago so the museum is running an anniversary exhibition between the 16th of January and the 10th of March.

For more details on the exhibition visit: