Thieves Like Us March 28, 2015
One hears of a movie described as "gritty" and there’s an automatic feeling of defeat. Gritty is to realistic as realistic is to tragic, and most go out to the theater to escape from all that. I bet you’d pick Singin’ in the Rain over Love Streams, after all; you’re only human. But Robert Altman doesn’t do grit like Cassavetes or the Coens — instead of consuming himself with shoddy realities, he finds the humor in the intricacies of everyday life, especially when those everyday mundanities are suddenly shaken and stirred. His best films, like Nashville or Short Cuts, are capable of being plain and true, but they are also capable of being hysterically funny and relatable. He invites us into the worlds of his films instead of pushing us away. There are no hints of man, I’m glad I’m not them — you suddenly correlate to their neuroses, good or bad, whether they’re walking around with some drug pushers or they’ve just been knighted by the Queen.
The characters in Thieves Like Us only consist of criminals and the people who love them, but it’s less Bonnie and Clyde and more Radio Days or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Like the latter, the situation is dire and the people lead difficult lives, but the story is told as though the narrator is sitting by the fire in a cozy brownstone in pre-Depression era New York. The words eventually move in a cataclysmic direction, but the events building up to those eventual thunderclouds are told quietly and affectionately, appreciating even the smallest of joyful moments. Thieves Like Us doesn’t deliver what we might expect in terms of straightforward entertainment, but like all Altman fills, the naturalistic dialogue and no-frills style add up to something that feels home cooked, and, in this film’s case, Southern-fried.
It’s about outlaws in love (a trend popular in the early 1970s, as evidenced by 1973's Badlands and 1974's The Sugarland Express), young and stupid, caring and confused. They are Bowie (Keith Carradine) and Keechie (Shelley Duvall). Bowie has always been a sort of Robin to his criminal friends, the country boy who needs guidance to pull off a particularly difficult robbery. Keechie is the crooked toothed, naïve daughter of a gas station attendant. The first time we meet Bowie, he is escaping from captivity, having been kept in a chain gang for a previous misdemeanor. He, along with his deplorable posse, hide out with the owner of the gas station and continue on a path of bank robberies. But after a confrontation, Bowie is injured, Keechie acts as his nurse, and … well, you can probably assume the rest.
These people don’t have much in the way of intelligence; they’re small town criminals who live small town lives who rob small town banks. They break the law not out of necessity but because they just don’t know what to do with themselves. But Thieves Like Us is hardly a glamour puss trying to make this crappy way of living seem cool; we exist only as a fly on the wall. These are not slick anti-heroes but screw-ups who probably grew up too fast, in denial about the repercussions they will someday face. When not acting as bandits, they lounge around in each other’s company, reminiscing over biscuits and gravy while the radio drowns out quick glimpses of silence.
That radio, oddly enough, is always playing, always matching the actions of the characters or the direction the film is going in. The speakers project stories of danger or superhero headlining serials — they contradict the characters in Thieves Like Us, who are bumbling and messed up and confused whereas the goons that define the radio programs are clever and successful in everything they do. Maybe Bowie and company admire those qualities; maybe they’re not smart enough to realize that they’ll ever achieve that level of calculated perfection.
The moments between Bowie and Keechie, though, are what make Thieves Like Us so touching. They aren’t blindingly attractive like the other “lovers on the run” archetypes of the era, and they aren’t necessarily sure why the other is person is so appealing. What they do know, however, is that they love one another and will do anything to stay in each other’s arms. There’s a point in the film where Bowie lies to Keechie about a trip (which turns out to be yet another criminal excursion), and she freaks out like she’s a bat out of hell, going from the demeanor of the sweet, affable girl to the potential wife who drives you crazy but you love anyway. For a second, she considers punishing Bowie by leaving him. But she stops herself. She loves him, sure, but if she did leave him, what would happen to him, to her? The relationship is tender and poignant, with post-coital scenes that affect us with their feelings of mutual adoration as cigarette smoke flies and silences ring.
Thieves Like Us is an imperfect Altman film — unlike many of his movies, banalities are not always enlivened by their dialogue — but its intimate, sweet-sad pathos are grandiose even when things seem small. B+