Wound tight by a killer premise, polished direction, and a tone as though Anton Chigurh sauntered into “Bottle Rocket,” Aaron and Adam Nee’s “Band of Robbers” wrings the anxieties of aging and a dampened imagination from a grown-up Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Structuring their modern tale around the Mark Twain narratives, the sibling directors find laughs, pathos, and some surprising storytelling twists, plus have a game cast to deliver it — Kyle Gallner, Stephen Lang, Hannibal Buress, Melissa Benoist, and Eric Christian Olsen.
The cast is refreshing for the lack of previously known kinship among them; unlike the Judd Apatow and Paul Feig collectives who deliver and tweak their lineups, there’s something to be said for a new group of comedic and dramatic actors establishing a dynamic. In this case it’s led by Gallner, who plays the straight man Huck Finn to Adam Nee’s deadpan eccentric Tom Sawyer, two childhood friends who end up on opposite sides of the law.
The film opens with Huck’s release from jail for petty crime, and Tom immediately uses the opportunity to present him with a new scheme: rob their town’s local pawn shop to procure a long-rumored stash of gold. To do so, he needs the gang rounded back up, including Joe Harper (Matthew Gray Gubler), Ben Rogers (Buress), and Tommy Barnes (Johnny Pemberton).
The Nee Brothers keep an extremely controlled hand on their tone and pace; improv is kept to a minimum as dialogue fades across scenes and physical movements are choreographed to a certain comedic rhythm by DP Noah Rosenthal (see the attempted robbery of the pawn shop). And it sustains itself when the film shifts to a more serious pitch, as the group is hunted down by the grizzled treasure seeker Injun Joe (Lang). a white man who wears Native American garb simply because he identifies with the culture and aesthetics.
Gallner and Nee have a fine chemistry, and both handle their thematic duties well, Nee carrying on the stunted growth of Tom Sawyer next to Gallner’s prison-hardened Finn. The world building between both of their tales is swift and untethered from exact literary beats; the spirit is there though, down to the Twain quote in the opening scene promising death upon those searching for plot, motive, or moral in the tale.
The supporting performances ride the line of absurdity without losing their dramatic impact. Fans of Buress from his standup or “Broad City” might despair at his extremely brief role, but so might everyone else when it comes to Benoist, who plays Sawyer’s newly assigned police partner. Her keen instincts and professional ambition are repeatedly downplayed by Sawyer, who wants her kept completely out of his mischievous plans. The same could be said of the directors, as it oftentimes seems as though they don’t know what to do with her character, and their solution is to sideline her altogether.
Still, the amount of economy, wit, and good-natured invention on the part of the Nees and their cast is fantastic to see. While it is rather obvious to pinpoint the influences behind some of their genre riffs, they’re well-executed, visually dynamic, and coupled with a catchy score by Joel P. West and sourced tunes like “Yama Yama” by the Yamasuki Singers. The end result may read as a gussied-up Funny or Die conceit at times, but through a surprising dramatic focus and well-written script it still performs wonderfully as an absurdist crime comedy with a wicked streak. [B+]