Although mostly cottoning to Mark Twain’s insouciance and witticisms rather than his gothic, mortally wounded ruminations on society (so it’s more Tom Sawyer than the superior Huck Finn), Band of Robbers gets us partway toward what anointed the early Coen Brothers as the cinematic exhumers of Twain’s rascally, still-kicking corpse. Recasting Tom (Adam Nee) and Huck (Kyle Gallner) as modern day slackers (the latter recently released from jail and the former a lethargic police officer), the film’s decision to revise Twain’s prose as a rattle-snake of a heist film is not exactly inspired in an age where that genre is an easy target for indie success. But that doesn’t make it ineffective. Obviously, it reeks too of filmmakers-of-a-certain-age basking in the warm glow of Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, but Band of Robbers is spunky enough and clearly enjoys the old-fangled spirit and the messy malarkey of childhood campfire tales, not to mention their more ruminative underbellies.
Even if it doesn’t particularly add to the Twain spirit (actually it does, a little, but we’ll get to that), Band of Robber’s greasy whippersnapper demeanor is amusing enough in a mostly off-handed way that mostly resists the self-consciously ironic indie film impulse to double-down on its own cleverness. Band of Robbers knows it’s all a lark, a couple of adolescent-in-spirit brother filmmakers (Nee and his brother Aaron) having a weekend costume party in plain-clothes. There’s little pretense of greatness, and that essentially saves the production from its own fan-fiction ambitions. Although one catches the whispers of allusion to classical literature that fell many films that mistake referencing past glories for creating new ones, Band of Robbers is less, and thus more, than the freshman-film-student-quoting-Twain-coffee-shop-lecture that the film promises. Instead, it’s a kid in one of those old-timey candy stores, and it just happens to take gifted classes on the side. Even better, when it ages into something both relaxed, even laconic, and also deeply dysfunctional, it recalls the early films of Richard Linklater with their pothead puissance and ear for characters who pinball around moments without ever catching a rhythm that will last them into adulthood.
Does it go awry? Yes, mostly with regard to race. This somewhat flighty film renames Joe as an illegal immigrant, Jorge, for some specious whites-getting-non-whites-into-trouble-and-them-proving-their-might-by-saving-the-non-whites politicking. It also takes a negligible turn into cheeky racial ambivalence by imagining Injun Joe as an antagonistic white man who dons the Indian nomenclature and garb because he enjoys the “identity and the aesthetic”. The latter line is spoken at least twice in the film. When asked if it is racist, the response both times is a hearty “How is it racist to want to be more like another race?”, spoken with a neutral and somewhat un-pointed inability to actually decide if the film has any opinion on the matter. Still, when it isn’t ironically not addressing race by addressing race or carting out that old “we’re intelligent because we ask questions without answers” chestnut, Band of Robbers is a smirking little morsel of a film. It’s no paragon of perceptiveness or a sojourn into sensitivity, but when it’s content to brawl with semi-rabid fearlessness and impetuousness, its intellectual mis-ambitions can be excused.
No mere afternoon mint julep either, the writer-directors fold in whisps of melancholy about men who refuse to grow up, resonating with not only with Twain’s text but society’s “boys will be boys” mentality of excusing men for their actions through a fatalistic rhetoric of cheery inevitability. Defying this nihilistic drive with an empathetic charge of self-reflection, the film eventually discovers a wry self-awareness about the characters’ own essential, craven refusal to age in an era of American arrested development (ever-prescient, considering our current president). Intimating that the outlaw spirit of grown-up boys is mostly a specious coping mechanism, the film matches the protagonists’ inebriated shenanigans with inchoate reflections on the jaded denial of one’s need to mature. Although it does not meaningfully investigate or even utilize Twain’s prose style (despite quoting some lines verbatim), the film does nail Twain’s moonshine-infused, bathtub-brewed concoction of boyish adventure and the fragility and fraudulence of filtering life through mythic male dreams.
Of course, it launders that very punctured nostalgia with a laddish script to make it more palatable, which is not always on balance an ideal choice, and it sometimes feels like a timid cop-out. But the balance works out in the film’s favor more often than not, especially in the quasi-mythic conclusion that leaves us on a parched, hung-up note, obviously endeared to wistful childhood fantasies but shooting them through with their likely fraudulent future. Thankfully, it doesn’t pull the rug out form under us and announce that this is naught but fiction, allowing the sense of fragility to creep into the film rather than being force-fed like a punishing final gut-punch of reality. If Band of Robbers hardly speaks to burgeoning born filmmakers, it may signal a respectable career still to come. But that is, as they say, another story, for another day.