Assembling a cast of Hollywood heavyweights can mean many things. It can signify the devil-may-care attitude of an Ocean’s Eleven, where acting luminaries are given quirky, “different” roles so they can have some fun away from their relentless Oscar baiting. It can, quite literally, be stunt casting, such as something like The Expendables, where the gluttony of violence and bloodshed also extends to the role call on posters. In the case of Robert Redford’s newest effort, The Company You Keep, it is a shot across the bow of the serious adult drama, declaring the director/star’s intent to burn the impressive résumés of his cadre of thespians in order to shine a light on truth, justice and the American way. But rather than illuminating hard truths about decisions made in the context of domestic oppression and uprising, the film instead bogs itself down in ambiguous moralizing, voiding the audience’s ability to root for any interest or character.
Redford casts himself in this throwback all-star team as Jim Grant/Nick Sloan, a former Weather Underground activist who’s been in hiding for three decades because of his participation in a Michigan bank robbery gone awry. It is clear that the Hollywood veteran wanted seasoned voices characterizing a complicated time in American history, a theme he specializes in lately (see The Conspirator, Lions For Lambs), and he got them (Julie Christie, Chris Cooper, Sam Elliott, Richard Jenkins and Nick Nolte, just to name a few). Nick leads a muted life, raising his young daughter (America’s Got Talent sensation Jackie Evancho) on his own after the death of his wife in a car accident a year prior. But his cloistered existence begins to unravel once one of his fellow robbers-in-hiding, Sharon Solarz (a sober-but-effective Susan Sarandon) is discovered and arrested. Nick fears his own discovery will jeopardize the security of his daughter’s young life, so he goes on the run to clear his name. Driving the chase vehicle is Shia LaBeouf as Ben Shepard, the dogged, cocky, fame-hungry reporter who represents both the young’s need for clear answers and the crumbling relevance of the Fourth Estate. He mostly rises to the demands of the role that initially position him as a slimy antagonist, but even his arc of discerning knowledge from truth pales in comparison to the rogues’ gallery of revolutionaries that Sloan must now contact in order to smoke out his one hope of salvation.
Once Nick goes on the lam, The Company You Keep finds comfort in the conventions of the old-fashioned thriller, a decision that keeps things familiar but deadens the impact of the potential consequences. Redford slips into the role of moral compass with practiced ease, but as he visits his old cohorts to try and unearth the solution to his quandary, favor for any position remains unclear. The script by Lem Dobbs, based on the novel by Neil Gordon, refuses to take sides with an easily vilified government or a domestic terrorist organization whose collective heart may or may not have been in the right place. Which is not to say that there isn’t a lot of speechifying about corruption, taking sides, and decisions that echo throughout lives that only vaguely reflect their youth. The film romanticizes the glory of a bygone age, when men and women stood for their beliefs no matter how counterculture they were, but reserves judgment on whether the participants were heroes or villains. This pensive approach is an expectedly mature one from Redford, but it doesn’t have the desired effect. By trying to present both sides of a touchy issue equally, it voids the investment in any of the characters. Some never bring their past out of the closet, and others wear it like a badge of honor, but the truth is just as vague as their connection to it, so the whole thing becomes an exercise in thinking about a controversy that’s already thirty years old. It doesn’t help that none of the powerful voices discussing this drama seem particularly emotional about the whole thing.
Methodical pacing and ponderous plotting slow The Company You Keep, not that it was very fast to begin with. Redford, both as actor and director, doesn’t trouble himself with urgency here, and while that can be refreshing, the film excites only occasionally, preferring to discuss the consequences of its principles’ decisions rather than stage any grand reaction. The 76-year-old founder of Sundance is still able to convey gravitas and authority on screen, but his presence is much more dominating intellectually these days. Here, he has surrounded himself with a pedigreed cast that fails to live up to its billing because this tale of justice and redemption is too convoluted and concerned with its own discourse to declare winners and losers. The legacy of the Weather Underground, no matter the morals, was that its members tired of talk and decided to take action. The Company You Keep could have learned a thing or two from the group it takes such pains to portray fairly.
Writer: Lem Dobbs
Starring: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Brit Marling, Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Stanley Tucci
Release Date: Apr. 5, 2013