THE OLD MAN & THE GUN Review: Redford Goes Out on Top
Among all of the wonderful qualities The Old Man & the Gun has, the most pressing is the awareness the film instills of how few true-blue movie stars we have left. I’m talking specifically about the kind of star whose persona often defined the tone and mood of a film. These handsome men and women, with their dazzling smiles and natural charisma, were the kind who walked into any scene like they owned the place, confident and winning, and would do so effortlessly. I’m talking about your Cary Grants, your Bogarts, your Hepburns (Audrey and Katherine), and, later, your Paul Newmans and Warren Beattys.
Robert Redford, perhaps the last of this breed of Old Hollywood performers, has carried all of those qualities in spades ever since he first shared the screen with Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Nearly 50 years later, The Old Man & the Gun finds him putting his talents to the same purpose: robbing banks, but charmingly. Based on a, mostly, true story, as the introduction cheekily puts it, the film follows the twilight years of Forrest Tucker, a smartly dressed career criminal. Tucker has escaped prison more times than most people have paid taxes, and robbed even more banks. With his two retiree-aged friends (Tom Waits and Danny Glover), he plans to rob even more.
Briefcase in hand and police radio in his ear, Tucker walks up to the teller and gently informs them, “This is a robbery.” He may show them the gun tucked into his coat…or simply gesture where one might be; one bank manager, unhelpfully, doesn’t actually recall seeing one. With a reassuring smile and calming, jovial tone, he urges the worker to fill up the briefcase. The worker does so, then hands it back. And then he’s gone. Tucker’s method is confoundingly simple. The detectives following his spree of robberies are continually bewildered. How can a man of this age be so prolific in his misdeeds? And how can he leave such a long trail of victims who all seem surprisingly happy to have had the experience?
Audiences have been more than happy to have their hearts stolen by Redford for decades. Only he could’ve played this role; in fact, the part was written specifically for him by David Lowery, who also directs. Each and every scene seems as though crafted to best display the actor’s specific talents. His winning smile never leaves his face, a twinkle ever-present in his eyes. There’s no malice about him, never resorting to violence, and feeling as though he wouldn’t even if it were necessary. During his robberies, he even exhibits genuine concern and curiosity about his victims. One happens to fall on an unfortunate, frightened teller’s first day on the job. “Chin up. You’re doing a great job,” he encourages.
A comforting warmth is the tenor of Redford, and the film matches him. Lowery has been an incredible purveyor of nostalgia going all the way back to his breakout Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, but he does not weaponize it cheaply. Shot on grainy, beautiful 16mm film and directed with a patience and leisure that few modern movies share, the film is authentically old-fashioned in its approach. Certain scenes could’ve been plucked straight from the early career of Robert Altman. Lowery is in love with the idea of playing with time, his films often existing as concentrated evocations of times passed, and the emotions associated with them. What’s unique is that the emotions aren’t those felt from the vantage of looking back, but of those people as they lived them.
In parallel with its golden years vibe, The Old Man & the Gun additionally operates as a reflection on the long career of its star and where he is now. At the film’s start, a chance encounter introduces Tucker to Jewel, played with dazzling sweetness by another veteran actor in Sissy Spacek. Their chemistry effortless, a romance forms and raises questions about whether Tucker may leave his life behind. Likewise, Redford has sadly announced his likely retirement from acting after The Old Man & the Gun’s release. The retirement would be well-deserved, the aging star having left an indelible mark on cinema. But Lowery’s film defines the very reasons that Redford has continued to be such a magnetic presence throughout his career, and the movies will never be the same without him. At the very least, he has chosen to go out on as fitting a note as possible, as a man who found the thing he loved, and never stopped doing it. Perhaps that will rub off on him.
The Old Man & the Gun is currently playing in theaters everywhere.