Robert Altman is a strange auteur. While he is not really concerned with plot, he is more concerned with his characters and mood of the picture. This can lead to duds (at least in my opinion) like MASH or great revelatory pictures like A Prairie Home Companion or Gosford Park. While he does essentially work in different genres (war, gangsters, concert, and period pieces) he transcends the conventions of each genre by eschewing them completely. Thieves Like Us was sold as the next Bonnie and Clyde, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead Thieves Like Us is about the exploration of the mundane nature of crime and bank robbing. And that is why it is better than a tightly plotted Bonnie and Clyde.
Bowie, Chicamaw and T-Dub team up to rob banks after Bowie and Chicamaw are sprung from jail. While robbing and thieving are their main preoccupations, we barely see them do it. Instead we watch their every day lives as they get drunk, smoke cigarettes and slowly fall in love with the women around them who are willing to shelter them from the police. They also listen to a lot of radio. As the movie progresses, their exploits become front page news and they all must become even more careful to not get caught. This is a problem because they are not that smart. T-Dub falls in love with a flighty beautician and puts his real name on the marriage license. Bowie falls in love with a young chain-smoking woman and continually returns to where she is staying although he knows the place is being watched. Chicamaw can’t control his temper and ends up shooting several people, leaving behind substantial evidence. Their adventures all end badly, but boy did they have a good time getting there.
Like I said before, this movie isn’t really about plot. It is more about the audience being able to spend time with these unique characters. They are constantly sitting around a table, listening to an old-time broadcast, drinking coke and telling lewd jokes. While they play some lip service to the crimes they want to commit and had just committed, they seem preoccupied with their fame more than the money they get from the robberies themselves. What’s great about this movie is that the actors are these characters and not vice versa. Keith Carradine (Bowie) in particular is able to truly inhabit and become the character that is sketched out for him. Bowie is an idealistic young man with not a whole lot of skill. When he falls in love with Keechie, he envisions a quiet life in woods with her. But he knows that can never happen. He will never be able to give up the rush of robbing from a bank. While I was watching this movie, it got me thinking about the acceptance of crime in one’s life. You might seek out crime because you need money fast, you think it is glamorous or there are limited other choices, but it eventually becomes a job just like any other one. You develop a retinue, and a tolerance for the behavior around you. You become bored and want to seek out the thrill of your first time. This is what Thieves Like Us captures so well.