Thieves Like Us Movie Review
A languorous single take opens the film, sweeping across verdant Mississippi countryside being traversed by a railcar carrying a chain gang and armed guards, before spying a couple of other prisoners rowing their way across a pond, chatting about things inconsequential. A third accomplice shows up with a car and some civilian clothes. The car breaks down, they take off on foot. Eventually the trio -- a couple of hard cases, T-Dub (Bert Remsen) and Chickamaw (John Schuck), and one fresh-faced young Ozark farmboy, Bowie (Keith Carradine) previously serving life for a murder committed at 16 -- wind up at a relative's place, where they hide out and plan their first robbery. Because the three, who continually refer to themselves as "thieves," never seem to consider even for a moment to do anything but just keeping on robbing and running. And so they do.
Created in the full blaze of Altman's 1970s creative powers, Thieves Like Us showcases most of the filmmaker's strengths and few of his weaknesses. Unlike some of Altman's work, whose stories and pacing can trend to the arbitrary, here the episodic and ambling nature feels more like a wandering journey, employed strictly as a means of detailing character, which it does beautifully. The script (adapted from Edward Anderson's novel by Calder Willingham, Altman, and his Nashville writer Joan Tewkesbury) layers each of its characters delicately, particularly Bowie. Carradine first seems to be playing a simple-minded and callow kid, with little knowledge of what he's done or why. But scene by scene, he grows before our eyes, morphing steadily into a career gangster, flashy car, moll at his side and all.
The moll is a gangly girl named Keechie, who could likely only have been played by Shelley Duvall. Seduced by this newly confident fugitive, Keechie's soon lost so far inside her own fog of dreamy-voiced puppy love that you wonder how she could ever find her way back out again -- Duvall rivals Sissy Spacek's turn in Badlands for portraying this kind of graceful blankness. Given that a good section of the film simply follows the two of them falling headlong in love (nary a bank is robbed), if Duvall hadn't been phenomenal the result would have been deadly.
The dialogue in Thieves Like Us, not just between Keechie and Bowie, but everywhere, is a daffy mix of purposefully bad jokes and often aimless ponderings. Between this and his often uneventful story, Altman could have ended up with great stretches of film that seemed to be going nowhere. However, he wisely stitches a great deal of the film together with a wonderful and well-chosen sonic background of vintage radio broadcasts, mostly crime thriller serials. Besides providing sonic distraction and fleshing out the period detail, the broadcasts also key us in to the overheated tabloid crime narratives that were so much a part of news and entertainment at the time.
Similarly, we tend to find out about the trio's crimes not by seeing them (with one key exception, Altman is more likely to park his camera outside the bank and catch up with the guys later) but by hearing about it on the radio, or listening to them read newspaper accounts out-loud. The men are almost more besotted with the media coverage of them as dangerous and dastardly outlaws than anything else, complaining bitterly when the details are wrong. These are men so limited by their ideas of themselves ("thieves like us") and obsessed with how they are presented to the world, that they're trapped, almost more so than the workaday, law-abiding types so interested in following their every move.
The long-awaited DVD release contains a fresh-looking transfer of the film, and an audio commentary by the late Altman himself.