20th Century Films

The Philosophy of Non-Attachment: Heat (1995)

Non-attachment is the practice of letting go of your desires, so you are not ruled by them.

heat-1995-poster-artwork-al-pacino-robert-de-niro-val-kilmerA central theme in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) is non-attachment: a “transcendent evenness of mind which enables one to participate in the temporal process without attachment.”1 Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) lives by this philosophy. To avoid going to prison, he is prepared to let go of anything he is emotionally attached to when the police are onto him.

For a career criminal like Neil, the worst form of suffering is a prison sentence. He tells Lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), “I am never going back.” In prison, he is no longer free to do what he loves most in life: to “take scores.”

When Neil believes the police are aware of his plans, he lets go of his emotional attachment to carrying out a crime. He says, “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything …  if you feel the heat around the corner.” For Neil, the financial gain from a robbery is not worth the increased risk of getting caught.

Neil holds to his philosophy of non-attachment when he attempts to rob a precious metals depository. He hears a noise coming from a van across the street, and immediately leaves with his crew. However, he abandons his philosophy when he decides to rob the Far East National Bank.

Neil is unable to let go of his desire to rob the bank because of another desire: He is in love with Eady (Amy Brenneman), and wants to run away with her to New Zealand. He doesn’t have enough money to live with her (without working), so he reasons that the robbery is “worth the stretch.” When a person has a strong desire for something, they are more likely to take risks to obtain it.

Non-attachment is the practice of letting go of your desires, so you are not ruled by them. An overpowering desire can impair a person’s ability to think logically. Neil survives the bank robbery, and could have had the life he dreamed of with Eady, but he can’t let go of his desire to kill Waingro (Kevin Gage). Neil’s desire for revenge leads him to the same place as Vincent, and he pays a price greater than prison: His loses his life.


  1. Winfield E. Nagley, “Thoreau on Attachment, Detachment, and Non-Attachment,” Philosophy East and West 3, no. 4 (January 1954): 307, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1397288


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