Bank of Bad Habits
by Genna Holtz
Ocean’s Eleven (2001) chronicles a heist carried out by eleven thieves in a team led by Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan. Each thief Ocean and Ryan select for the job specializes in an area of illegality, each man is necessary for carrying out the seemingly impossible task. Through incredibly clever means of manipulation and deceit, the team carefully and painstakingly plans and executes a robbery of the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas. The references to food in the film are so ingeniously subtle that most audiences fail to recognize the food’s meticulous placement, but that’s where the genius of Ocean’s direction lies. Food gently but persistently adds dimension to the enigmatic character Rusty, played by Brad Pitt, to communicate his emotional state.
In almost every single scene in which he appears, Rusty is eating something. Most of Rusty’s scenes occur in frames with short-depth of field and low-key illumination. This gives the character a quality of mystery and shadiness, fitting for a thief. In his scenes Rusty, whether deeply engaged in strategic planning with his team or collecting intel on the casino, munches away at his food constantly. Rusty’s consumption never takes precedence or is referenced by other characters, but a close observation of Rusty’s eating in tandem with the plot reveals that the foods he chooses suggest his mood.
In order of his fourteen main appearances, Rusty eats nachos, whiskey, coffee, soda, cotton candy, jello, gum, salad, a lollipop, shrimp cocktail, Red Bull, ice-cream, candy, and finally, a burger. Each of these foods symbolizes his feelings. For example, when Rusty and Danny are assembling the team, Rusty eats soda and cotton candy. While these choices seem appropriate since the scene is set at a carnival, Danny choses not to eat anything while Rusty munches on his snacks the whole time. His juvenile food choices convey that he is giddy and excited about the plan. This is supported by the closeups on Rusty’s smirks and boyish grins. In the next food appearance, Rusty uses jello to mock Saul, the older gentleman he is trying to recruit for the team. Rusty lazily eats the jello, a food usually associated with elderly individuals in hospitals, to make fun of the fact that Saul seems to be more health conscious now that he’s getting older. In fact, Saul does conspicuously peel an orange, a healthful food choice, as the pair sit and talk together. Later, when the team is practicing how they will infiltrate the Bellagio’s vault, Rusty sips on a Red Bull. This demonstrates that he is very nervous and trying to gear up for the big event. In all of these iterations, food is in low-lighting and shown in a color that blends in with the rest of the scenery. It never directly demands the audience’s attention, but observant viewers recognize that it adds depth to Rusty’s character. These relatively unhealthful choices communicate to the audience Rusty’s ever-evolving mental state, characterized by compulsory consumption.
Food’s ability to symbolize and convey emotion is epitomized by the final scene of the film. As Rusty waits for Danny, he munches on a burger. Midway through this scene, silent except for the diegetic crumples of the wrapper encasing the burger, Rusty gets heartburn and throws the burger in the garbage. The gesture is symbolic of the job coming to completion, and indicates that Rusty is done, and feels at peace. His consumption can stop because the heist is officially over. Additionally, it’s possible that his heartburn foreshadows that just as there are consequences for his consumption of unhealthful fast food, there will be consequences for his robbery of the Bellagio. The continued presentation of food in conjunction with Rusty suggests to audiences that the character’s consumption of both food which is bad for him and money that doesn’t belong to him will eventually come back to haunt him. Furthermore, while his food tendencies may suggest his addiction is to eating poorly, junk food is a proxy for Rusty’s bad habit of large-scale robbery and fraud, serious crimes with serious consequences. He chooses get-rich-quick schemes instead of hard work. Rusty’s affiliation with constant consumption in an array of situations and environments hints at his addiction to crime. The shots never zoom in on his food, in fact several times food is just out of frame or in low lighting, but it is always there. Just as the food is hidden but present, Rusty’s underlying, internal struggles are obfuscated by his “man with a plan who plays it cool” persona. Rusty speaks few words, but his choice and consumption of food speaks volumes about his inner workings.
Ocean’s Eleven. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Warner Brothers, 2001.