NYFF 2010: THE ROBBER Review

columnist, critic; USA (@suddenlyquiet)
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NYFF 2010: THE ROBBER Review

Is there anything in moviedom more consistently frustrating than the "arthouse thriller"? 

I'm not talking about films created as commercial thrillers and subsequently embraced by cineastes. I'm referring to dramas, and sometimes romances, that are so "nuanced" that they risk putting audiences to sleep, and so cover for themselves by including watered-down tropes from more populist, engaging fare. A repentant serial killer retires to an Alpine village to collect pension checks and butterflies. A kidnapper adopts a puppy and we're meant to contrast his loving treatment of it with his callous disregard for young human beings. You know the type of bastardized genre I'm referring to--the promise of full-on action or suspense is always lurking there as a kind of tease, but the movie gets away with never fully delivering the goods because its high-minded goals are thought to elevate it beyond that obligation. 

Well, I'm happy to report to you that The Robber, which will be screened on Monday and Wednesday at NYFF and at Calgary's CIFF later this week, plays no such shell game with audience expectations. I confess, though, that for certain stretches of Benjamin Heisenberg's measured, supremely assured film, I started to harbor doubts. What renewed my faith was that the occasional set piece would be so well executed, the percussive score and snappy editing so smoothly propulsive, that I suspected that Heisenberg wasn't going to sell out the potentially huge upside of his premise. After all, that premise derives from a novel that in turn is based upon a real-life story that's so naturally kinetic that it simply screams out for a big screen treatment:  Johann Kastenberger was both an accomplished marathon runner for Austria... and one of the nation's more successful bank robbers. And no, we're not talking about a movie in which some guy robs banks only with a getaway car, then goes for long, contemplative jogs on weekends. Nope, this film is the embodiment of the "take the money and run" approach--except Johann doesn't just run, he flies. 

Here he is renamed "Rettenberger" and played by Andreas Lust, fine in Revanche a couple of years ago and even better now, in what would seem to be a deceptively difficult role. Thematically recalling films as varied as The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The Swimmer, The Naked Prey (and, if you squint, Marathon Man), The Robber presents physical challenge as existential challenge. As such, all the running ultimately has nothing to do with other people, let alone beating them in races or taking their money. The real struggle here is with society, or God, or life itself--take your pick. In sum, it's a story that Dostoevski would have loved, and Lust plays the deadpan ex-con with an intensity that's highly paradoxical: he does his utmost to remain a vacuum. Indeed, one of Heisenberg's best visual jokes involves Rettenberger removing his generic rubber hold-up mask and showing us that there's actually not much change in the character's expressiveness.  

As his love interest (the term is used loosely), Franziska Weisz plays her emotions equally close to the vest, and it's remarkable how much she achieves with a few quick glances and half-smiles. The moments that she and Lust share together are among the many quiet scenes that Heisenberg unfurls as he sets up the sloooow-burn structure of his thriller. Throughout the long build-up he and co-editor Andrea Wagner show a penchant for the effective contrast, with dichotomous qualities (silence/loudness, light/darkness, motion/ stillness) sharply juxtaposed. This keeps us on our toes, for sure, but the implicit pattern also ratchets up our expectations since we can't help but wonder how the narrative itself will suddenly shoot through the roof and do away with all the tension-filled quietude. Which is why the third act is so beautiful and satisfying. I won't go into specifics, but let me say that more than once I thought the film was essentially winding down (which was fine with me), only to be taken off-guard by Heisenberg kicking things into overdrive.


So exhilarating, in fact, is the final part of The Robber that some audiences may understandably feel cheated--why couldn't the rest of the film be more like it? Well, first, because then it would star Angelina Jolie or Tom Cruise and probably just be, um, dumb. Nothing wrong with dumb in the grand scheme of things, but Heisenberg et. al. are just too good at being smart. Plus, one eventually gets the sense that they're playing a deeper game. Our desire to know more about our blank-slate protagonist and our mild annoyance that he remains a blank slate (except in the closing seconds?) simply signals that the film's strategy is working. We want to know more about Rettenberger because his decisions often seem so maddening. What are his goals? Or does he not have any because he's more of an addictive personality? Moreover, what's his backstory? 

At every turn both Lust as an actor and Heisenberg as a director put up a wall that not only fails to provide answers to such questions, but makes us feel that it's bad manners even to be asking them. In my case it was only in retrospect I considered that my impatience might signal some kind of cinematic "transference." After all, my desire for answers and explanations aligned with the similar complaints of Rettenberger's parole officer and, really, with those of the constraining forces he was rebelling against in the first place. That's not to say that we're wrong to ask questions about basic character motivation... but it's a powerful thing to realize that Rettenberger is in part running from exactly this type of scrutiny--in fact, given the option, he'd probably run right off the screen to escape our prying eyes. The Robber is so good, though, that most of us would shake off the popcorn crumbs and, grumbling, get up out of our seats and start trotting after him.

NYFF screenings are Monday, September, 27th at 6:00pm, and Wednesday, the 29th, at 9:15 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center. CIFF screens The Robber, Thursday, the 30th at 9:30PM.
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Info and tickets for The Robber at NYFF
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