All too often in heist movies, pesky nuances like character or motivation, are pushed to the wayside in favor of exhilarating action set pieces. A great recent example of this is Ben Affleck's technically proficient "The Town," in which we know very little about any of the characters (besides the fact that they sport Boston accents of varying authenticity and are all very mad), but which feels crammed, every 20 minutes or so, with high-octane heist sequences. All of which makes "The Robber," an Austrian thriller based on a novel (which itself was based on a series of actual crimes), such a blast: it's a heist movie which is almost completely character-based. For this reviewer, it was the surprise thrill of this year's New York Film Festival.
The Robber" begins, appropriately enough, with Johan Rettenberger (Andreas Lust from "Revanche"), running around a small track in an Austrian prison. He's a bank robber about to get released from jail, but judging by his interview with an interested parole officer, he hardly has any feeling on the matter. Still, there's something glistening behind those eyes: he'll get out, do his part to be in society, but still keep up with his passion, er, passions (more on that in a minute).
Almost as soon as he's out of prison, Rettenberger is out robbing banks. He does so with ease, choosing smaller banks, mostly in daylight. Stylistically, the heist sequences are handled with a low key smoothness: long, effortless tracking shots that stay with him as he goes about his business, watching him exit the building and not picking up with him until he's back at his shitty little apartment, going over his loot. The movie is mercifully devoid of any mess psychology or sentimentality that would clutter the narrative. He just does what he does and he does it well.
The other thing that he does well, we learn, is run in marathons. Although it's never made explicitly clear (see the lack of psychology), he engages in these high-endurance races (many times winning them), because it's the only way he can replicate the raw thrill of robbing banks, on an almost bio-chemical level. It's an incredibly interesting character trait, and one that the character shared with his real life contemporary (in a post-movie press conference, the director Benjamin Heisenberg, said that cops brought down the real-life robber by matching the shoes he wore in races to the ones he robbed banks in). The race sequences are treated with the same stylistic commitment, as we race alongside him, in elongated, slickly realized shots.
When Rettenberg takes up residency with an old flame (and soon begins an affair), the movie takes on an element of emotional danger, because we don't want to see her let down. If she's the noose that will prove to be his undoing, then an unfortunate run-in with his probation officer, pretty much cinches it tight. The movie's last act elongates into a protracted chase, and besides a few of his bank robberies having some kinks (there's a breathless sequence where he sprints through the basements of a small town), it's the first time we've really seen him run for his life. It's a startling emotional shift: we want him to get away, even though he's done some very bad things, and for the first time in the entire movie, there's a very distinct possibility that he won't make it through the wide net of the law.
"The Robber" works so well because of Lust's pitch-perfect performance, one that is just as physical as it is intellectual, and because Heisenberg remains so restrained in areas that would have been blasted out of proportion in all sorts of fantastically sentimental directions by a lesser director (we only have a cursory understand of how he knows the woman he ended up living with). Heisenberg takes us along for the ride in a way that few filmmakers would dare to do, rarely deviating from the robber or his inner circle (no cutaways to authorities barking orders), and through the fluidity of the filmmaking and narrative closeness of the story, makes us implicit in the crimes. But, whew, what a rush. [A-]