1. There haven’t been many actors who are more purely pleasant to look at than Robert Redford. He’s handsome, sure, still at 82, but it’s more than that—it’s always been more than that. There is a comfort in his skin, that little twinkle in his eye, that relaxed, almost impish implicit understanding of his own absurd charm. I don’t know if I’d call Redford a great actor in the way Gene Hackman was a great actor, or Marlon Brando was a great actor, but I’m not sure there’s ever been a more perfect movie star. He has the ease of a guy who’s getting away with it, in a medium that’s all about getting away with it. He always leaves you wanting to know more.
2. Of the many things that David Lowery’s The Old Man and the Gun does right, staying fixated on Redford’s face is the smartest. Redford, in what he has said is his last performance (though he’s since backtracked from that), plays Forrest Tucker, who, we learn at a calm, leisurely pace, is a lifelong bank robber. And I really mean lifelong: He’s still at it in his eighties in the year 1981, with a small, equally elderly crew (played by Donald Glover and Tom Waits!), hitting banks across the Southwest with precision, intelligence and, more than anything else, a disarming politeness. (All his victims keep remarking how friendly he is.) Meanwhile, a Texas cop (Casey Affleck), dissatisfied with his career, trails him and becomes part of a cat-and-mouse game, with Tucker leaving him playful notes and even, in one terrific scene, popping in on him in the bathroom. The lifelong rogue, who has spent most of his life being sentenced to prison and then busting out, also comes across a widow named Jewel (Sissy Spacek), and they have a gentle, wistful courtship. He clearly cares for her … but he’s a bank robber, and he’s never going to stop.
3. Lowery pushes the story on with a style that’s both lively and laconic, like his star himself; the movie has the rhythm of a fun ’70s laid-back thriller but a certain undeniable mournfulness about the passage of time, of growing old, of lessons learned. (There’s a scene with Redford and Spacek talking on the porch about how their younger lives feel like different people all together that leaves a warm haze that never lifts for the rest of the film.) Lowery wrote the script, and it shares several thematic similarities to his last film, A Ghost Story, also starring Affleck. That film was obsessed with the passage of time, to the point that time itself became almost the main character of its story, eternity’s indifference both awing and moving in equal measure. This film is much lighter and straightforward than that movie, but that idea of identity, and how it evolves and stays constant throughout the decades, is foregrounded here, as well. Tucker learns about himself, and the effects he has the world, and he allows himself a respite with Jewel, a look at a potential final act of his life. But he also knows who he is. And that’s part of growing old, as well.
4. Every scene with Redford and Spacek (and Glover and particularly Waits, for that matter, who tells a story about Christmas that is irrelevant to the film but feels included because, shit, you don’t cut away from Tom Waits when he’s telling a story) feels like a cool walk on a long beach, but I’m afraid the Affleck story doesn’t work as effectively. Affleck is fine, if a little fussy and fidgety, like he knows the character’s a little thin so he’s trying to dress him up a bit, but his cop’s story isn’t particularly compelling, and a focus on his domestic life is familiar and even repetitive. Catch Me If You Can this isn’t: He is no worthy adversary to Tucker. Every time the cop and his family are on screen, even when the scenes are done with Lowery’s usual wit, feel like a distraction. Let’s get back to our hero.
5. And what a hero he is. Tucker is not particularly complicated, but as played by Redford, he feels no less than an embodiment of the passage of time. In a bravura sequence toward the end, in which Tucker lays out the 17 times he has escaped from prison, Lowery shows us each escape. Tucker begins as a boy, then a teenager, then a man who looks, of course, like Robert Redford when he was younger, using actual footage from Redford films, before we meet the man today, in his golden years. It takes what had, to that point, been a breezy, fun, expertly constructed wistful little comedy and elevates it into something divine. The story of the movies is the story of time, how it tricks us, and jolts us, and moves us, the person we are the same we have always been, but also not. The Old Man and the Gun is a jaunty joyride, a valedictory for a beloved American icon and a giddy true story. But Lowery ties it all together at the end: It’s a story about how the years go by, and who we are. It’s a story about all of us.
Director: David Lowery
Writers: David Lowery; David Grann (based on article by)
Starring: Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover,Tom Waits
Release Date: September 28, 2018
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.