For a movie filled with explosions, drinking, crime, torture, and watching Sandra Bullock learn how to say “fuck,” The Heat is actually a roaring endorsement of the power of the family unit. It’s not an idealization of a particular kind of family but, rather, a celebration of the strength and stability that comes from growing up surrounded by the same people.
On the one hand, we have Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock), who grew up in the foster system. Ashburn prefers to keep her past to herself, only revealing her story during a night of heavy drinking. She futilely and unbelievably tries to pretend that her upbringing had no effect on her life.
On the opposite side of the coin, we have Detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy), who was raised in a household filled with yelling, social ignorance, and quite a few variations on the theme of white trash.
Their upbringings become relevant when these two women meet. As the two, who are police officers, start working together on the same case, it is immediately clear that the two have literally incompatible styles of crimefighting. Ashburn is a by-the-book professional who prefers to solve crimes through observation, thoughtfulness, and scientifically-supported methods of interrogation. Mullins, on the other hand, would just as soon throw you out a window as look at you. She is focused on results and is willing to yell and cuss until she gets exactly what she wants.
We see time and time again that these two styles, even when working toward a common goal, cannot yield any results. This is a picture of the two of them just trying to get through a door.
According to Hegelian philosophy, conflict comes about when one force (the thesis) encounters a second force (the antithesis). Eventually, through the process of conflict, compromise, and fairy magic, you end up with a result (the synthesis), which is a new whole that is either made up of a sum of both parts or one conquering force nonetheless changed by the conflict itself. Basically, A + B = C. So who would you expect to change when straight-laced Ashburn (A) and firebrand Mullins (B) have to work together? Who does C look more like?
In the real world, one would hope that Ashburn would teach Mullins the value of protocol, turning her into a respectable member of the establishment. In The Heat, we get the exact opposite. By the end, Ashburn has abandoned her scientific methods; she resolves conflict through vulgarity and high explosives. She foregoes regulation for poetic justice, going so far as to shoot a man, in a busy hospital, in the testicles. Twice. So if logic and rightness aren’t the resolving factors of these womens’ conflict, what is? Why does Ashburn turn into Mullins and not the other way around.
The easy answer is that you’ll sell more movie tickets having Sandra Bullock blow shit up than showing scenes of Melissa McCarthy reading books but the real answer goes deeper than that. Looking back at their families (or lack thereof) provides us with an opportunity to not only understand why these women behave the way they do but also to understand why it is Ashburn who wavers in the conflict and gives up much of her identity to find their synthesis.
Having grown up in a family, however dysfunctional it is, Mullins has been through this dance before. Growing up, her “A” had to develop an identity that was able compromise with and survive her father (B), her mother (C), along with four brothers (D, E, F, and G). Mullins is already the product of a familial synthesis rife with Boston toughness and loud noises. When its comes to intensity, Mullins is already a well-entrenched “H” by the time she meets Ashburn.
Now let’s look at Ashburn. She is highly intelligent and capable, proven by her incredible arrest record and knack for solving crimes through sheer observation. Her upbringing has also forced her to be independent. Her solitude is exemplified by the fact that her only companion is a cat. And it’s not even her cat, it’s her neighbour’s. This independence is what has allowed her to rise through the ranks of the FBI. She has studied hard and takes so much pride in her rightfully earned intellect that she alienates everyone around her with her arrogance. This independence is also the reason why, when push comes to shove, she evolves into Mullins and not the other way around. It’s implied that Ashburn didn’t stay with just one family growing up. She calls the places where she grew up “the houses” and that she grew up among “other children.” A lack of meaningful relationships requiring co-operation leaves Ashburn susceptible to any kind of strong personality.
As strongly as Ashburn has built herself up, she is still a structure built on a single support – herself. In allowing herself the opportunity to participate meaningfully in a relationship with another person, Ashburn’s less-supported identity has to absorb into and amalgamate with the larger, stronger collective. The Heat is what happens when an unstoppable force meets a highly capable but easily movable object.
As compromised as she becomes, we are meant to understand that Ashburn is better for having built this relationship and gaining the extra pillar of support. It’s better that she gained a family later than never and, in turn, she is able to contribute more meaningfully, having endured the conflict and undergoing the most drastic growing pain she will ever endure. From here on out, she has already undergone the crucible of synthesis and it will become easier and easier to be the force of influence instead of its wispy recipient.
Dylan Clark-Moore is a podcast creator and blogger at NetFlakes. You can find him on Letterboxd and Twitter.
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The Heat is also available from Amazon.