– – – Contains Spoilers – – –
America has always been obsessed with the doomed romantic tale of the bank robbing couple on the run. It is their version of ”Robin Hood” or ”Dick Turpin”. There’s something enigmatic about the anti-hero who doesn’t follow the rules of the establishment. Robs from the greedy bankers, and charms young, unsuspecting women who fall for their every word, hook, line and sinker.
In the late 60s through to the 70s films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Getaway (1972) and Badlands (1973), managed to connect with the young cinema audience who saw these anti-heroes as role models. They were rebelling against the authority, and this tied into the public’s attitude towards the Nixon government at the time.
I would argue that perhaps we all secretly wish from time to time we could be successful crooks ourselves. And films like Bonnie and Clyde and Thieves Like Us allow us experience that vicarious thrill ride for a short time within the safety and comfort of a theatre. However, these films are steeped in realism, and the law always catches up with the young lovers in the end. A bleak reminder that, in reality, crime doesn’t pay, and the establishment will always reinforce its power.
Like Bonnie and Clyde that came 7 years previously, Thieves Like Us ends with an excessive shoot-out, shown in heartbreaking slow motion. But Altman makes the scene more devastating by showing us Bowie’s (Keith Carradine) body being brought out wrapped in the patchwork blanket of his girlfriend, Keechie (Shelley Duvall), and dumped in a puddle. There is no elegant grace – ”ballet like” – in his death like we see with Beatty and Dunaway characters.
Robert Altman took on the myth of the bank robber / anti-hero with his version of Edward Anderson’s novel Thieves Like Us, which had previously been adapted to screen with Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night. What made Altman’s version superior was the fact that he shot on location in Mississippi, giving the film an authentic look and feel to it. These are real dirt roads, back alleys and rail tracks, which give off a nouvelle vague / new Hollywood vibe.
The decision to shoot on location shows just how effective Altman was as a genre director. Dipping in and out of certain genres because he simply chose to film what story he wanted to tell. And his passion for creating an authentic story meant that he went out of his way to ensure he created the right atmosphere. The world of The South, presented as an isolated hub connected via railroad or dirt roads, leads us from one iota of civilization to the next. We feel somewhat privileged, in a way, to witness this world which is inaccessible to many.
This authenticity is reinforced by the fact that the film has no traditional score. All the music in the film is diegetic, which is usually presented as coming from a radio. The outside world is shown to us via radio and newspaper, to reinforce this sense of a tight-knit community. Altman’s presentation of The South heavily influenced the Coen Brother’s O’ Brother Where Art Thou, which was also set in Depression era Mississippi. Although it was a far more jolly film.
The film opens with two men in a rowing boat who make it to dry land. Only to flag down a car which has a jolly fat man driving and a passenger in the back, who hands the men a gun. It turns out that all three men are escaped convicts: Bowie (Keith Carradine), Chickamaw (John Schuck), and T-Dub (Bert Remsen). Rather than do their time, the three have chosen to continue their crime spree of bank heists, and will resort to murder if anyone happens to get in their way.
Chickamaw seems to be a loose cannon and a heavy drunk which may cause trouble in the future. Keechie (Shelley Duvall) is a romantic acquaintance-turned-caregiver-turned-lover after Bowie is injured in a car accident. He requires her personal assistance because he’s on the run and therefore can’t attend hospital. The young couple shack up in a cabin, but their relationship is rocky when Keechie voices her concern about Bowie’s bank robbing activities.
The gang plans one more heist in Yazoo City, which will be T-Dub’s 37th robbery. But Bowie is less excited as fears for his new-found emotional safety net in Keechie. The heist is successful, yet the stakes rise even higher as an innocent banker’s life is taken in a silly mistake that could have easily been avoided. Whatever the end result may be, we know that it isn’t going to turn out well for Bowie and Keechie. This is the pessimistic 1970s after all.
The film ends will Keechie leaving, pregnant and alone, as she walks up a staircase up to a train station platform, becoming lost in a crowd of people. What will become of her and how damaged is she now after having to endure such a loss (not only of her lover but of her youth)? It’s a moving ending, which had me wishing that I could somehow reach through the screen and help Keechie, such a sweet, tender creature.
Keechie isn’t like Bonnie Parker; she isn’t attracted to Bowie because of the sexual thrill of violence and the excitement, but because she sees a mutual wounded soul. Towards the beginning of the film, the two of them have a tender exchange, whist sitting out on the porch in rocking chairs getting to know each other.
The dialogue starts about the mundane topic of Coca-Cola (in almost every other scene of this film, someone will be drinking a bottle of coke). Slowly the conversation becomes more flirtatious talk as they discuss how she knows how to shoot a gun and has a “really good grip.” When he holds out his hand asking her to prove it, she simply smiles at him, and says, “Nah, I gotta go…” The scene is presented via long shot, and Altman lets it play out in real-time, making it seem like are witnessing something special.
As the two of them get to know one another later on in the film, they clumsily find their way into making love, as a radio play of the original doomed star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet is being aired. They seem like an odd couple, mismatched and thrown together due to the circumstances that have arisen. Carradine is good-looking, and Duvall is unconventionally attractive, with an ordinary beauty to her.
During a scene where she emerges naked from the bath and climbs into bed with him, it’s sensual and odd, because it doesn’t play out with the predictable rhythm of a love scene. Altman understands that what makes Duvall attractive is her otherworldliness, and never shoots her in a perverse fashion to over-sexualize her. We buy into the relationship because of Duvall’s strong performance.
Overall, Altman’s unique understanding of the world that is the South, and the two hours that we spend in the company of these young lovers, and the larger-than-life bank robbing trio, helps to cement this film as an underrated classic. It shows us Altman’s capability to take any story and make it his own without becoming a cliche or an one trick pony.
This is a beautiful, slow paced film, which is stunning by the extraordinary approach it takes to capturing the mundane. There is beauty in the everyday activities, such as sitting on a porch and drinking a bottle of coke. This is a film best enjoyed with a bottle of Coca-Cola and a rocking chair.