Thursday, January 11, 2007

Thieves Like Us

dir. Robert Altman

Young love. Keechie and Bowie.

January 9, 2007 - 35mm/
IFC Center

They’re like us! Three bank robbers escape from a Depression era Mississippi prison to continue robbing banks. Thieves Like Us is a bank robber movie without very much bank robbing. Every once and a while we see a stack of cash and, if we’re good, we see the inside of a bank. For the most part, we see the kitchen, bedroom, porch and dining room. When any number of these rooms are occupied by a young actress named Shelley Duvall all thoughts of gun fighting, car chases and Bonnie and Clyde banjo hijinks take a back seat. Ms. Duvall plays Keechie (the movie is peppered with such names as Bowie, Chicamaw and T-Dub), a virginal farm gal.

In a typical crime narrative, Keechie falls for a roughneck youth, turned on by his recklessness. In Thieves Like Us, Keechie falls for Bowie, another simpleton, who just happens to make ends by robbing banks. For those who remember Keith Carradine as the smiling cowpoke who meets a chilly demise in McCabe in Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us acts as a smiley spin-off (what happened to this smiling goofball between this movie and Nashville that turned him into the man’s man that would go on to play Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok is beyond me). Neither Carradine nor Duvall can keep an elated smile off their face when together. This device matched with Duvall’s commanding physical presence and enormous star-filled eyes make for some serious chemistry. Bowie smiles aw shucks and Keechie returns the smile one hundred bushels over. Shelley Duvall is sexy.

Shelley Duvall is not he the only woman in this picture who delivers a star-making performance and eventually gives a career best performance opposite Jack Nicholson, only to have typecasting effectively ruin the rest of her career. Enter Louise Fletcher, who plays Mattie, the sister-in-law of one of the trio of crooks. Like Nurse Ratched, Mattie is a rock. With a husband in prison and a couple rambunctious youngsters, she has the presence of a high school principal, exuding a maturity that is silencing to adults and children alike. At the same time, unlike Nurse Ratched, she is compassionate and loved and respected. In the final scenes, when Thieves Like Us, when it gives in to its genre conventions and makes a bombastic exit, Fletcher and Duvall share numerous scenes together and it becomes clear what Milos Forman and Stanley Kubrick saw in these fantastic actresses.

Set in 1937 during The American Depression, the soundtrack is jam-packed with radio waves. Believe it or not, Robert Altman was 12 years old in 1937, and he brings his first-person perspective by flooding scenes with the echoes of radio plays and news reports rumbling about "The New Deal,” rather than music. The effect is sometimes silly and distracting, particularly underscoring an intimate scene between Keechie and Bowie. This brand of “comedy” permeates the scenes between the three bank robbers, almost like a far, far less funny Raising Arizona. All the same, Thieves Like Us is not a comedy. It is a serious movie about young love and domesticity. There’s just a bit too much bank robbing in it, even though there isn’t much. It’s like buck shot, and only a few pellets hit the heart. The rest is just buried in your elbow and upper arm. That’s just annoying. Kill me Altman, like I know you can.

No comments: