Throughout his 58-year career, Robert Redford has relished playing the good guy, even when that guy wasn’t really good. He made an outlaw loveable in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a counterfeiting grifter noble in The Sting and Death comforting in a 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone. And in his latest and apparently last role, he’s turned a bank robber into one of the nicest men of the cinematic year.
Written and directed by David Lowery, The Old Man & the Gun is loosely based on real-life robber Forrest Tucker, whose story was detailed in a 2003 New Yorker article by David Grann. Though Tucker’s entire criminal career would be film fodder – starting with a bicycle theft at age 13 and continuing through dozens of incarcerations and improbable prison breaks – it’s his septuagenarian years that Lowery focuses on, specifically a spree of Texas bank hold-ups in 1981. And that’s the right choice, as it makes the story manageable and allows reflection upon a life most would view as ill-advised at best and totally wasted at worst.
But Tucker didn’t view his life that way. Described by his victims as “sort of a gentleman,” he gained inner strength and freedom from his crimes. Fittingly, Lowery’s script isn’t as concerned with the crimes as with Tucker’s mindset, and his heists are filmed with little urgency or suspense, as if he’s strolling in the park. Heightened by Daniel Hart’s wonderful score, which mixes cool jazz and soft pop, the robberies are strangely serene, as is the entire film. Even a detective hot on Tucker’s trail can’t muster much passion or outward emotion for the pursuit, as if he too has fallen under the spell of his prey – or perhaps under the spell of Redford himself, who, despite a muted performance, is eminently enjoyable, infusing his character with relatability and humor. It’s enough to forgive Lowery’s last collaboration with Redford (the misguided Pete’s Dragon) and proves Lowery’s versatility.
In a recent interview for Turner Classic Movies, Lowery admitted his fascination with character motivation, which explains his script’s almost complete deconstruction of the crime drama from a genre of suspense to one of introspection. Eschewing violence, Lowery instead emphasizes Tucker’s tender relationship with a woman (Sissy Spacek) to whom he partially confesses his crimes (though she doesn’t believe him at first). Lowery also features genuine moments of friendly banter between Tucker and the other members of his “Over the Hill Gang,” which, along with Butch Cassidy’s “Hole in the Wall Gang,” serves as a clever career bookend for Redford.
Those fellow gang members are played by Tom Waits and Danny Glover, whose charmingly unassuming performances leave you wanting more. The same could be said for the wonderful but underused Elisabeth Moss, as Tucker’s estranged daughter, and Spacek, who enjoys perfect chemistry with Redford in what is, surprisingly, their first film together. As the detective, Casey Affleck is only slightly more emotive than he was in Lowery’s A Ghost Story, in which he was covered by a sheet for over an hour. (Still, there is no denying his screen charisma.)
There’s also no denying the aesthetic oddness of Old Man. Shot, paced, designed and performed as if it’s straight out of the late 1970s or early ‘80s, it’s much closer to time travel than those big-budget films with digital animations of bygone urban landscapes. But like Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (also featuring Affleck), this movie is an enigma, professing profundity but lacking consequences for its characters and almost lulling you to sleep with its existentialism. And despite being based on real events, its plot sometimes stretches believability and even contains at least one editing error (unless Lowery temporarily suspended his traditional chronological structure). But what’s most surprising, considering Lowery’s preoccupation with character motivation, is that Tucker turns out to not be a terribly complicated or haunted guy. “He just loves robbing banks,” the detective concludes.
If Redford doesn’t change his mind about retirement, the old man will likely take his last bow sans an Academy Award for acting. But as Sundance strolls into the sunset, he leaves a legacy more golden than Oscar.