Under the bright and unyielding Madrid sunshine, eight people enter the Royal Mint of Spain. They are armed, clad in red overalls, their faces covered by cartoonishly grotesque Salvador Dali masks. Swiftly and methodically the masked gunmen take over fifty hostages and seal the doors, barricading themselves inside. Their goal is eleven days. Eleven days during which they have to keep the ever-intensifying police presence outside at bay while at the same time keeping their hostages safe; eleven days to successfully manipulate the national and international media into favourable coverage; and—crucially—eleven days to work the Royal Mint’s presses overtime to print €2.4 billion of clean, untraceable bills before making their escape.
This is Netflix’s Spanish-language series, Money Heist. Originally airing on Spanish television in 2017 under the name La casa de papel—literally The House of Paper, an infinitely cooler title—Money Heist is the most addictive viewing experience I’ve had in a long time. It is slick, stylised, edge-of-your-seat stuff that mixes pure genre thrills with deep and involved forays into human emotion and interaction. Netflix has played with the original episode formatting a little bit, splitting the individual parts into slightly shorter segments while increasing their number, but this is a show with storytelling so compulsive that the formatting is largely immaterial. By the time you get to the end of the first chapter the show has its hooks in you so deep the episodes start to fly by at obscene speed and the line between them blurs completely. It becomes impossible to watch ‘just one more’. In fact consider this a warning: If you give Money Heist a chance, time will go soft. Your arse will go numb. You might forget to feed the cat. It will probably hate you for it.
And it is 100% worth it.
Money Heist’s central pillar is, naturally, the titular heist. And it is a doozy. I’ve always found it funny that a bunch of people just robbing a place could so often make such a compelling story. Yet heist movies remain—alongside neo-noir—my favourite cinematic sub-genre. Whether it’s Rififi or Inside Man or Heat, I love observing the mechanics of the robbery, the intricate detail of it. But I love it all the more if the human element is equally well fleshed out. Because the most compelling heist stories make sure that the characters involved are just as interesting as, if not more so than, the heist itself. After all, the practical realities of a heist—the high-pressure situation, the closed spaces, the cat and mouse game that must ensue between two inevitably brilliant opposing sides—are so conducive to interesting human interaction, that it’s not just negligent, but actively malicious, to tell a heist story that doesn’t care about the human drama that would naturally play out in such a situation.
Happily, Money Heist delivers human drama in spades. There’s a whole lot of smuggling things in and out of the Royal Mint of Spain that happens during the gang’s operation, but more than anything else it is the filmmakers who get something past us. By presenting to us the Trojan horse facade of a crime thriller, and by smuggling inside of it a telenovela’s-worth of drama. There are stories of familial neglect and redemption occurring right alongside the audacious bank robbery here. Stories of guilt, and remorse. Multiple love stories play out during the heist. It gets to the point where you cannot be sure as to what you are more invested in: The heist, or the people carrying it out and their crisscrossing soap opera stories. I use terms like telenovela and soap opera in a positive sense, by the way, lest there be any misunderstanding. There are times, yes, when the drama veers into places that feel a little bit too contrived or unbelievable, but those are few and far between, and like a tiny diced up habanero chili hidden throughout a dish they just serve to occasionally take things to another level, to jolt you awake and to keep you on your toes.
The key is that the two sides of the story are so well intertwined, with the hour-by-hour business of the heist affecting the people involved in it, as the people in return affect the progress of the heist. These are vulnerable, multifaceted characters, with full lives outside of the grand criminal scheme they are currently swept up in. They have fears and neuroses and hopes and dreams and foibles that mean they do not always work as efficiently as they should. A number of times—invested naturally in the success of the heist as an audience member as I was—that I grew frustrated with a character’s bullshit. ‘Why couldn’t they simply do X?! Just go along with the plan?!’ But the longer you spend with these people, the more you understand them and their backstories, the more their actions feel believable, and consistent.
One of the show’s clever conceits is cutting back and forth between the events of the actual heist, and the five month period that they all spent at a country house beforehand. There, schooled by the mastermind behind the heist, El Profesor, they learned the details of the plan, as well as a number of skills that they would need for its successful completion. They also bonded, and laughed, and misbehaved (their relative professionalism, experience, and age varies wildly). By giving us this extended insight into where these people came from, and how they first bonded as humans, Money Heist really wears its interest in deep characterisation on its sleeve. The criminals here all take on code names based on cities—Tokyo, Berlin, Nairobi, Rio, Denver, Helsinki, Stockholm, Moscow—but so richly are they drawn that we never feel the distancing that such a move often involves.
See, I just proved my earlier point: I said that the central part of the movie was the actual heist, and then I spent several paragraphs talking about the people instead. Believe me: The heist is a doozy. Its mastermind, El Profesor, has spent nigh on two decades planning it, mapping every detail, police reaction, and eventuality onto a precise matrix of (to the police at least) apparent omniscience. We spend almost as much time with the police outside as we do with the thieves inside, and seeing them constantly get outwitted and outplayed is a treat that never gets old. There are fake shootouts, costume changes, secret telephone lines, military grade explosives, hidden microphones, a mole—El Profesor’s scheme has more twists and turns in it than a high Alpine road.
Naturally, though, no matter the god-like degree of preparation, errors do work their way into the plan. Some of these are due to the large number—and varying temperaments—of the hostages; others due to the team of robbers and their foibles; yet more are forced by the quite brilliant and tenacious female inspector leading the police operation trying to bring the heist to a blood-less end. And what an inspector she is. All the characters in Money Heist are great, and their respective performers bring them to life excellently, but Inspectora Raquel Murillo in particular stands out as a truly wonderful creation—a middle aged professional woman who is an ace at her job, who nevertheless has a fully realised personal life, complete with a divorce, a young daughter, a caring, live-in mother, and a troubled love life on top of that. We see all of these sides to the Inspector, and the actress, Itziar Ituño, nails every single part, whether it is her determination, intelligence, humour, love, anger, or sorrow. Murillo and her journey is quite representative of Money Heist as a whole, which shows a particular interest in its female characters. Don’t get me wrong, the majority of the characters here are male, but the way the story is told means that the considerations and perspectives of women are often emphasised to a degree not often seen—especially in stories of this genre. Inspectora Murillo’s endless battle with the machismo and condescension that her profession is rife with proves a particular highlight.
Money Heist is a very smooth, stylistic production. Its prime influences are undoubtedly American, but there are hints of Korean crime cinema here and there too. The mix makes for very compulsive viewing. Bold colours; slo-mo bursts of violence set to popular music; clean, sharp lines—combine that with the unmistakably melodramatic DNA of Spanish cinema and what you’re left is with a hidden gem that fans of heists, crime movies, or just quality TV in general should not miss.
Just, you know, be careful. You will forget to feed that cat.
Header Image Source: Netflix