AT THE MOVIES
Redford’s Last Act Is a Low-Key Delight
By Noah Gittell
Some movies are like novels. They contain sprawling plots, multiple narrators, and rich texture. “The Old Man & the Gun” is more like a novella. It’s a paper-thin slice of Americana, a true story that is told with such whimsy that it feels delightfully fictional. To be clear, this is a compliment. Much like its hero — a gentleman bank robber played by an irascible Robert Redford – it’s pleasant, romantic, and charming, even if it doesn’t leave you with anything more than a smile.
Redford has stated publicly that “The Old Man & the Gun” will be his last acting role, and if so, it’s a perfect note on which to end a career that began in earnest with the story of another bank robber, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” In the new film, he plays Forrest Tucker, who breaks out of prison (for the 16th time) in 1981 and picks up right where he left off, unburdening banks of their money with little more than his movie-star charm. We’re not even sure he carries a gun; he opens his coat to show it to the bank tellers, but we never see it, and when questioned, they can’t remember if he had one or not.
The film by David Lowery (“A Ghost Story,” “Pete’s Dragon”) follows his exploits on this latest excursion from prison, focusing on his efforts to woo a beautiful woman (Sissy Spacek) he meets on the side of the road. The cops are on his tail, so he pulls over to help her with her broken-down car. “Do you know much about cars?” she asks. “No, not really,” he replies breezily. The two have an easy, lived-in chemistry. Tucker tells her what he does for a living, and when she laughs in disbelief, he doesn’t belabor the point. The pair don’t talk about their future or their past very much. They just exist together on camera, a task that sounds easy but actually takes decades of experience to properly accomplish.
As they get to know each other better, Texas detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck) takes on the case of Tucker. Suffering from middle-age malaise, he finds a renewed purpose in assembling the clues of this recent spate of robberies and inching closer to getting Tucker behind bars again. Affleck, who plays understated as well as anyone working today, fits in well with his older co-stars. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, he and Tucker come face-to-face in a public place. Neither actor appears to be doing much, but their eyes sparkle with joy at the recognition of their nemeses, or, perhaps, their doubles.
Director Lowery hints at these profound truths but never draws them out into the open. Instead, his message comes through the form. Lowery, in previous efforts, “A Ghost Story” and “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”, pioneered a narrative approach in which the most exciting events are left off-screen, and we pick up with our characters in their immediate aftermath. When the film skips over a particularly tense robbery and cuts to the police interviewing witnesses (who tell us what happened), it rearranges your brain in a delightful way.
It’s a film of small and simple charms, and it feels conspicuously low-stakes when sandwiched in between the melodrama of “A Star is Born” and the slasher thrills of the new “Halloween.” The main characters are older and prepared for their lives to end, so death would not feel like a tragedy. Even if Tucker ended up in prison, would he mind? History tells us he’d be out again soon. Nothing much matters in “The Old Man & The Gun,” which makes it both refreshing and a little disappointing. The parts are all there for greatness, but the film seems determined just to be good.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue