A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Like so much of his work, Robert Altman’s “Thieves Like Us” has to be approached with a certain amount of imagination. Some movies are content to offer us escapist experiences and hope we’ll be satisfied. But you can’t sink back and simply absorb an Altman film; he’s as concerned with style as subject, and his preoccupation isn’t with story or character, but with how he’s showing us his tale.
That’s the case with “Thieves Like Us,” which no doubt has all sorts of weaknesses in character and plot, but which manages a visual strategy so perfectly controlled that we get an uncanny feel for this time and this place. The movie is about a gang of fairly dumb bank robbers, and about how the youngest of them falls in love with a girl, and about how they stick up some banks and listen to the radio and drink Coke and eventually get shot at.
The outline suggests “Bonnie and Clyde,” but “Thieves Like Us” resembles it only in the most general terms of period and setting. The characters are totally different; “Bonnie and Clyde” were anti-heroes, but this gang of Altman’s has no heroism at all. Just a kindof plodding simplicity, punctuated by some of them with violence, and by the boy with a kind of wondering love. They play out their sad little destinies against two backdrops: One is the pastoral feeling of the Southern countryside, and the other is an exactly observed series of interior scenes that recapture just what it was like to drowse through a slow, hot summer Sunday afternoon, with the radio in the background and the kids playing at pretending to do Daddy’s job. If Daddy is a bank robber, so what?
The radio is constantly on in the background of “Thieves Like Us,” but it’s not used as a source of music as it was in “American Graffiti” or “Mean Streets.” The old shows we hear are not supposed to be heard by Altman’s characters; they’re like theme music, to be repeated in the film when the same situations occur. “Gangbusters” plays when they rob a bank, for example, even though the bank would have been closed before “Gangbusters” came on. That’s OK, because the radio isn’t supposed to be realistic; it’s Altman’s wry, elegiac comment on the distance between radio fantasy and this dusty, slow-witted reality.