This is Not a Robbery

This is Not a Robbery

The documentary This is Not a Robbery clocks in at just an hour and eleven minutes. Its subject is J.L. “Red” Rountree, a man who made a career change at the age of 87, to bank robber. (As he recounts, until his first wife’s death devastated him when he was 83, he’d never even gotten a traffic ticket.)

The movie is structured in an impressionistic way, weaving together clips of interviews with Rountree—both video, and audio only—interviews with people from his personal life as well as law enforcement personnel and judges and such, re-creations using moving drawings (not regular animation, but more like Tom Goes to the Mayor), and various background clips and photos.

Most notably it’s out of chronological order. I’m sure there’s some thematic reason it’s done that way—e.g., this incident in 1970 relates to his first bank robbery, this incident in 1960 relates to his second bank robbery, etc.—but I found it unnecessarily confusing. Just tell the story; don’t get all artsy about it.

In some respects the movie’s style works. It clearly wants you to find Rountree and his story weird, comic, and even a little inspiring, and I went along with all three. Gradually you do get a decent idea of who he is and what he’s about; it’s just that it’s done in a way that’s like watching the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle get filled in at random, where by the end of the movie it’s half done.

At times This is Not a Robbery felt frustratingly superficial to me. The interview with his second wife (a Texas stripper 50-60 years his junior, who is about 5% as hot as Anna Nicole Smith, and probably somewhat more messed up with drugs and such) is the highlight. You actually get a little beneath the surface with her, and learn more about him through her. But the other interviews just don’t reach that level.

It’s like the interviewer or the editor is going for the funny or provocative sound bite rather than really digging. Like when Rountree is asked if he thinks he’s doing something wrong, or if he feels bad about frightening the tellers, he just says “No,” or maybe something like “Robbing banks is fun!” and then it’s on to some unrelated clip.

Well, just remembering from my interviews for my book Prison Conversations, you don’t let something like that lie there. You have to follow up. Why isn’t it wrong? Why is it OK to frighten the hell out of a teller? Converse with him. Challenge his values that apparently allow for robbing banks. If he thinks it’s perfectly fine to rob banks, make him defend it with something more than a throwaway remark or a witticism.

Later it turns out he doesn’t like banks because he once went bankrupt when he was unable to pay back a bank loan. OK, then follow up on that. Is it the bank’s fault that you couldn’t pay back the money you borrowed from them? What does your bad experience with that bank have to do with robbing completely unrelated banks?

Not that you have to get all judgmental with him for being an unrepentant criminal (though one can make a case for doing so), but at least dig enough to give him a chance to explain why he’s an unrepentant criminal, why his value system allows him to make choices almost everyone else in the world’s value system excludes.

It’s interesting that even the judicial system treats him as a cute old man. Granted, his bank robbing style is about as tame as it could be. (He simply hands the teller a note that says “Robbery.” He doesn’t have a weapon. He just counts on their being trained to always fully cooperate with a bank robber to be on the safe side.) But it’s still bank robbery, for Pete’s sake.

He is arrested three times. (He implies he did dozens of bank robberies, but doesn’t give specific figures.) The first time he is let off with a warning. The second time he gets three years, of which he serves two. The third time he finally gets a legitimate sentence for a major crime.

Clearly everyone in the film likes the guy. And he won me over to some extent too. I guess his nonviolent bank robberies are kind of cool at some level.

Then again, he maybe doesn’t strike me as being as much of a novelty as he would most people. Unfortunately it’s not that much of a stretch for me to imagine some of the guys I knew at the Washington State Reformatory committing crimes like this into their 80s and 90s, if they happen to be still around and functional in their 80s and 90s.

This is Not a Robbery is a fun little documentary in its way. I just don’t think it fully lives up to its potential. With this material, it seems like it should be possible to make a longer, deeper, more serious film—though still with quirky moments of humor.

As it is, I’d say this is worthy of a mild recommendation.

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