Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Unseen #8: Thieves Like Us

Why’d I Buy It?; It completed my seventies Altman collection.

Why Haven’t I Watched It Yet?: Though I’d never deny his status as a grandmaster of cinema, Altman’s films, with precious few exceptions (McCabe and Ms. Miller, Nashville, Prairie Home Companion) are work for me, as opposed to pleasure. That’s not to say the films aren’t great, but that I have to make a conscience decision to watch them, which I don’t have to make when popping on A Scorsese, Truffaunt, Peckinpah, Kubrick, or Coen film. He’s a filmmaker always slightly at distance for me, like Monte Helleman.

How Was It?: Thieves Like Us, encapsulates a lot of what’s great and what’s difficult about Altman. There’s an unforced naturalism to the era, about as far from the glamorization and fetishized portrayals of Public Enemies, Boxcar Bertha, and Bonnie and Clyde as you can get. I’ve never seen a period drama that seems so unforced and unimpressed with it’s art direction.

Equally unforced is the easy humanism that marks the best of Altman’s work. The movie works best when capturing the quiet rhythms of human behavior, and with Shelley Duvall at her most appealing and vulnerable, and Robert Carradine, in a rare lead turn.

Unfortunately there’s a fine line between natural and meandering, and unlike in his best films, Altman is none too careful about crossing it. At the risk of sounding like a philistine much of Thieves Like Us is a frankly boring movie. Filled with long improvised scenes that don’t really go anywhere. For every scene which effortlessly captures the day to day rhythm of life, like when a group of people slowly gravitate to a radio playing The Shadow, there’s a long roundabout scene where a guy hits on his own niece.

The fact is, that this, like many Altman films, rises and falls on the quality of it’s company, which is simply not of the first water. The characters, aside from Carradine’s likeably callow performance, and Duvall’s sympathetic turn, don’t make much of an impression. I hate to use the word likable, but it applies, no one here is particularly interesting, or seems worth spending time with. And since spending time with these characters is pretty much all the movie is (where you really expecting an intricate heist in an Altman flick?) this poses a significant problem.

Despite it’s many charms and strong attributes, Thieves Like Us, remains almost purposefully, second tier Altman.

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