“I’m not talking about making a living—I’m just talking about living.”
If you loved doing something—and I mean really loved it, so much so that you felt it was essential to the core of your being—how hard would it be to let go? That’s the central question behind David Lowery’s newest film The Old Man & the Gun, a joyous, breezy affair about a spree of bank robberies committed by career criminal Forrest Tucker in the fall of 1981. Coincidentally, or rather intentionally, the question also pertains to the man tasked with Tucker’s portrayal: the still radiantly warm Robert Redford, who has been charming the pants off of audiences since his debut all the way back in 1962.
Based on a true story, though Lowery immediately lets it be known that some liberties were taken by slapping a “mostly” into the mix, the film opens with Forrest fleeing the scene of a crime just outside of Dallas, parking his car in a covert location and swapping it for another one. As he’s driving down the highway he notices a woman, Jewel (Sissy Spacek), pulled over on the side of the road, trying to fix her broken truck. Being the gentleman he is, he offers her a ride into town, beginning a courtship that serves as both the connective tissue between the myriad of robberies and the emotional core of the film. The chemistry between the two is apparent from the moment they first interact, their back and forth banter infused with the same playful spirit that inhabits the rest of the proceedings. There has been a rightful celebration of Redford’s contributions to cinema surrounding this supposed swan song, but Spacek’s talent shouldn’t be overlooked; she’s every bit as charismatic and distinctive as he is. Thankfully with this and her riveting performance in Hulu’s Castle Rock, it seems she’s still got plenty left in the tank.
If film history has taught us anything, it’s that no good heist is accomplished alone, and that lesson is reinforced by Forrest’s partners in crime, the equally grizzled Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits). Dubbed the “Over-the-Hill Gang”, they go from one small South-and-Midwestern town to another, generally preferring to keep it as low-key as possible—despite being criminals, they aren’t violent. The camaraderie between the three is palpable and offers plenty of laughs; Tom Waits delivers the funniest line in the movie as the punchline to a long-winded story about his stepfather. In fact, one of the few definitive faults of the film is how the two become sidelined in the last act.
Fresh on their tail is John Hunt (Casey Affleck), a disillusioned detective who thinks catching the gang will make the time he’s sunk into the thankless job all worth it, until he begins to develop a sort of appreciation for Forrest. As a man of the law, he doesn’t condone his actions, but Forrest’s unabashed truth of self certainly makes him envious. John’s mixed-race family also plays a role, with his wife Maureen (Tika Sumpter) and their adorable kids offering frequent support, though like other aspects of the narrative the social implications of their marriage (remember, this is Texas in the early 80s) are glossed over in favor of a fairly tension-free atmosphere.
The unassuming vibe is anchored by a relaxed, jazzy score courtesy of Daniel Hart and sumptuous 16mm photography by Joe Anderson, which masterfully evokes the era of filmmaking that Redford is best known for. With the near-ubiquitous proliferation of digital imagery in today’s landscape, every ounce of celluloid used is a small victory; I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all the best looking movies I’ve seen this year were shot on film. The only source of heightened energy comes in the form of Lisa Zeno Churgin’s editing, bouncing exuberantly from bank robbery to bank robbery, and a humorous sequence towards the end depicting Forrest’s sixteen(!) prison escapes that is somewhat reminiscent in tone to the work of Wes Anderson. It’s an intriguing choice for what is ostensibly a crime thriller, a genre that historically relies on white-knuckled tactics to keep viewers on the edge of their seats.
And that’s okay. I suppose some might be disappointed he doesn’t go out in a fiery blaze of glory, but that’s clearly not what Redford wanted. Instead, with The Old Man & the Gun he and Lowery have delivered a distillation of everything that has made him the enduring star that he is (a clip from one of his earlier movies is even used in the aforementioned prison break sequence), choosing to focus on his bright smile and the innate pleasure derived from his easy-going nature. It never aims too high, and I think it’s all the better for it. Redford has gone on record saying this will be his last on-screen rodeo—and if it is, it’s a fitting way to go—but the love emanating from his performance reveals a man still very much drawn to his craft. I’m not saying it’ll happen, but like Forrest Tucker himself, don’t be surprised if he develops an itch for one more job.