Bandits (review)

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The Player’s the Thing

Some writer — wish I could remember who — once said, about the crafting of a story, that if there’s a gun on the drawing-room mantelpiece in Act I, someone sure as hell better get shot in the drawing room with it in Act III; and if someone gets shot in the drawing room in Act III, there sure as hell better have been a gun on the drawing-room mantelpiece since Act I. The point is, writers need to set things up properly — ya can’t have stuff come outta nowhere, nor can you throw in something as incendiary and interesting as a gun and not use it. Audiences — be they readers or moviegoers — won’t stand for that kind of cheating.

The thing is, once you’re aware of how stories are constructed — and anyone who sees lots of movies starts to internalize the rules, even if you’re not consciously aware of them — you can pick out the metaphoric gun in Act I and know that someone, metaphorically speaking, is gonna get shot with it in Act III. And if the story is structured so that it opens with someone getting shot and tells us how that came to be in one long flashback… well, the instant the gun appears on the mantelpiece, you’ve got the whole deal sussed instantly.

In related news, Billy Bob Thornton — a smart guy — plays a smart guy in Bandits, and he’s got a smart, funny line that goes something like this: “It’s no fun being smart, because when you’re smart, you always know what’s gonna happen, so there’s no suspense.”
All modesty aside, I’m a smart gal, and I hafta agree with Billy Bob here. Bandits is: 1) the obvious gun, 2) the “surprise” shooting — or, more accurately, 1) the “surprise,” then 2) flash back to how we got to the “surprise,” with a stop at the gun, not so cleverly hidden on the mantelpiece, along the way. (See, another point of the writer’s gun/shooting analogy is the gun on the mantelpiece must be present but not much attention should be accorded it, so that its use comes as a surprise, but a fair one. We’re supposed to take scant notice of the gun, and then forget it until someone picks it up in the heat of an argument.)

This will make more sense after you’ve seen the movie.

Fortunately, Bandits is not about the suspense of forgetting about that gun and being surprised by its reappearance later. It’s about watching Billy Bob and Bruce Willis fight over Cate Blanchett — hey, who wouldn’t? — with all the clever panache of a 1930s screwball comedy. (Astute film lovers will pick up on the semi-oblique reference to the ultimate screwball romantic comedy, 1934’s It Happened One Night.) It’s also about the very un-P.C. but intensely romantic notion that a life of crime is not only fun but liberating, too. And it’s pulled off with such deadpan joie de vivre that it’s the perfect antidote for the insanely distracting reality we are living with at the moment. I went into Bandits feeling like a zombie, sure I needed to quit reviewing movies because what was the point of anything anymore, and by the time it was over, I realized that I had not only laughed but had not thought about reality for two hours, which seemed like a precious gift.

The success of Bandits is probably not due to director Barry Levinson, with his wildly hit-or-miss track record. (Wag the Dog? Rain Man? Sure. But Sphere? Toys?) It is definitely partly down to screenwriter Harley Peyton (who wrote a bunch of Twin Peaks) — little gems of lines like Billy Bob’s calling Cate “insane!” and her response of “I’m unhappy! It’s not the same thing” litter the film. The script is intelligent and subtly, unexpectedly witty, absolutely, but in an almost purely character-driven story like this one, the cast is key. Do we want to spend two hours watching Billy Bob and Bruce and Cate stand around cracking wise and kissing and arguing and making up? I can only speak for myself, but, yeah, sure.

Joe (Willis: The Kid, The Whole Nine Yards) and Terry (Thornton: A Simple Plan, Armageddon) are the “most successful bank robbers in the U.S.,” and Kate (Blanchett: The Gift, The Talented Mr. Ripley) is excited to be their hostage. She hasn’t quite been kidnapped by them, actually — neither guy could hurt a fly, a trait from which much of the film’s humor is derived; it makes possible the empathy we can feel for Joe and Terry, too, the wanting to share their exhilarating and relatively carefree lives. No, Kate just sorta invited herself into their little gang as an escape from her humdrum suburban life and jerk of a husband.

They rob banks cleverly. In between, they bicker like a married couple– er, threesome. She kinda falls in love with both of ’em, and you can see why. Billy Bob makes his neurotic, hypochondriac Terry winning and darn near irresistible — quite a feat when you consider how downright annoying hypochondriacs are in real life. Bruce wields his usual charming smirk with his usual charming smirkiness, a post-ironic Robin Hood who makes us cheer that he robs from the governmentally insured rich to give to himself. And Cate… a goddess. She’s simply a divinity bestowed upon us mere mortals, and we must consider ourselves fortunate to be allowed to bask in her glow. Watching her when she first appears in Bandits, dancing with wild abandon around her kitchen as she cooks a gourmet meal, is like how it would feel to snoop on someone in the privacy of their home in real life: We catch someone acting so openly, so completely as themselves, without the veneer we adopt in public. Movies usually treat us to fake-spying on people in “private,” actors still with their guards up and their characters only pretending to be raw; Cate makes it genuine. All praise Cate.

It’s entirely possible that I’m not thinking rationally right now — I’ve been seriously preoccupied for a month, after all. It’s entirely possible that I’m giving a silly movie too much credit in thanks for diverting me for a few hours. But I’m not usually easily diverted, and I’ve always liked Billy Bob and Bruce and Cate. So it’s probably safe to assume that I’ll still love this movie a year from now. We’ll see.

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