“The Old Man & the Gun” is based on the true story of a bank robber and escape artist who refused to retire and spent the majority of his 83 years in and out of jail.
But what “Old Man & the Gun” is really about is Robert Redford’s charm and his handsome face.
A few months back, the 82-year actor announced that this would be his swan song. More recent comments have cast some doubt whether Redford will keep his promise. But, in any case, an aging movie star really couldn’t ask for a better final role than this.
“Old Man & the Gun” is a tribute not just to the Sundance Kid but the charismatic outlaws and outsiders he’s played over the course of his near-60-year career. It’s also a eulogy for another era of movies. In fact, it pretty much perfectly replicates the look and feel of the kind of ’70s movie it’s celebrating.
Inspired — loosely — by David Grann’s New Yorker article of the same name, “Old Man & the Gun” is set in 1981 and follows Forrest Tucker (Redford), a lifelong criminal now in his 70s and living in Texas. Along with a couple of other old thieves (played by Danny Glover and Tom Waits), Forrest is robbing banks all over the state. And he’s doing so politely.
The first time we see Forrest, he walks up to the bank manager, flashes a smile (and then his gun) and casually informs him that this is a robbery. Forrest uses charm and courtesy instead of force, as Redford’s charisma is a far more effective weapon than the gun. The manager will later tell the authorities that Forrest was “sort of a gentleman” about the whole thing.
Before long, a bored detective named John Hunt (Casey Affleck) figures out that all these nice-old-man robberies are the same guy. The press dubs Forrest and his partners “The Over the Hill Gang.”
A manhunt — an extremely laid-back manhunt — ensues, with the FBI eventually joining John in his pursuit.
Meanwhile, Forrest has a meet-cute (in the middle of a getaway!) with Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a widow who lives near the bank he was robbing. They have a few dinner dates, and we get the pleasure of watching two legends wax wistful about happiness, regret and the vagaries of aging.
Forrest tells Jewel that he’s a bank robber on their first date, but she doesn’t believe him. Or maybe she does.
The film doesn’t dig too deep into Forrest’s psychological motivations for his life of crime. He just loves robbing banks and escaping from jail, so that’s what he’s done with his life. When an old black-and-white movie of a daring horseback heist plays on TV, he smiles. This is a movie about a guy who was inspired to rob banks by watching movies about guys who rob banks.
The beauty of “The Old Man & the Gun” is that, on paper, it’s not that different from last year’s terrible comedy “Going in Style,” in which three old guys — Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Alan Arkin — decide to rob a bank. But, as Ebert said, a movie is not what it’s about; it’s how it’s about what it’s about.
And in this case, determining the how is writer/director David Lowery, the brilliant filmmaker behind “A Ghost Story,” “Pete’s Dragon” and “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.”
As with his previous films, Lowery’s sensibilities are rooted firmly in the past. His movies are laid-back, laconic even — slices of Americana transplanted from a long-gone way of life.
Every inch of “Old Man & the Gun” is steeped in something warm and wistful. Cinematographer Joe Anderson shot it in 16mm film, as if the movie’s throwback appeal weren’t apparent enough. It’s playfully framed and edited like an old Altman movie, with the camera and the story occasionally veering away from the main characters and dialogue, just to show us the workaday happenings of small-town banks, diners and main streets.
Flashback montages (which utilize old footage of Redford) run through Forrest’s daring exploits, such as fleeing San Quentin on a makeshift boat. And like the film itself, Daniel Hart’s lovely score oscillates between jaunty and yearning.
But the film’s most welcome bit of old-fashioned filmmaking is in how much room Lowery gives his actors.
If “Old Man” is an ideal swan song for Redford, it’s also a great reminder of what a terrific actress Spacek is. With this and her recent work on Hulu’s “Castle Rock,” the actress is having one of her best years in a long time.
Affleck is equally good as a guy who’s shaken out of despondency once he has someone to chase. And Waits and Glover are a delight as Redford’s crusty ol’ gang.
In Lowery’s movies, even actors who only have a scene or two get a chance to shine. Look out for Elisabeth Moss, Tika Sumpter and “BlacKkKlansman” star John David Washington doing fine work in small roles. And look really closely for a blink-and-you-missed-it appearance by Keith Carradine.
Style, performance, dialogue — just about everything in “Old Man” is calibrated in a key of understatement. But we do get one hell of a climax.
A shootout, a car chase, a farewell kiss and Forrest riding on a horse for the first time in his life as the cops close in on him. All of it set to Jackson C. Frank’s elegiac “Blues Run the Game.”
My chief quibble with “Old Man” is that it doesn’t end here on this perfect note.
The denouement that follows is as lovely as the rest of the film. But it robs the movie of the opportunity to send off one of Hollywood’s last living legends in the grandest way possible. The final frame of Redford’s six-decade career could have shown our handsome hero riding off into the sun-lined horizon.