Robert Redford has been introducing The Old Man & the Gun on the festival circuit as his last acting role. He’s said this before, but he’s always come back for one more. He’s won an Oscar for directing and producing, but never for acting, and at 82 years old, it could be his last film. Director David Lowery is coming off a string of interesting films, including one of my favorite films of 2016, A Ghost Story. Do these two find a stride with one another?
This film follows a ‘mostly true’ story about Forrest Tucker (Redford,) a career bank robber who has been caught multiple times but continuously is seduced back to a life of crime after escaping from prison. He meets widowed rancher Jewel (Sissy Spacek) whom he slowly falls for. Meanwhile, Detective John Hunt (frequent Lowery star Casey Affleck) pins a case against Forrest and his conspirators, two other older men played by Danny Glover and Tom Waits, whom he dubs, “The Over-the-Hill Gang.” Will Forrest escape this life of crime before it’s too late? Does he even want to?
If this were something more Hollywood friendly, like the recent Going in Style or Last Vegas, I think I would have liked this movie a lot less. There’s nothing silly or goofy about it. It also isn’t a traditional heist movie. It’s a subdued character study. It almost plays like an understated Catch Me If You Can. It’s not necessarily about why he commits these crimes, but the mindset of the criminal himself. He’s not robbing banks to leave a fortune to any family after he dies. He doesn’t have any great reason for robbing these banks. He’s doing this to feel alive, and at this point in his life, it’s the biggest joy he has. At one point, he’s asked why he lives near a cemetery. “No reason,” he responds. You wonder what kind of a point of view a person like this must have, having lived the life he has, and it’s interesting to see this character revealed, layer by layer.
Redford may be in his 80’s, but he’s every bit of a true movie star as he ever was. He’s the gentlemanly bank robber who always leaves his victims with a good impression. “He seemed like a very nice guy,” bank employees always say when police question them. He still has the charming movie-star presence he always did, and this role is very much a tribute to his career. Stock footage from old Redford roles is shown, and at a certain point, it almost becomes a love letter to his career as a whole. It’s a juicy role and he has lots of fun with it. He also does quite well with Sissy Spacek, playing a similarly lost soul. They have an engaging chemistry, and they’re a pleasure to watch together.
David Lowery makes this look like a 70’s throwback, but not obnoxiously so, where every moment is winking at the audience. The film has a grainy, gritty quality to it, as Lowery filmed this on 16mm film stock, and all the better for it. It looks different than a lot of films do today, and it effectively sets a very specific tone very early on. Lowery also fills this with interesting actors, including BlacKkKlansman breakout John David Washington and famed folk singer Tom Waits. He’s also written the screenplay, based off a New Yorker article about a real bank robber. While I’m sure creative liberties were taken, nothing feels hokey or trite.
If the viewer is expecting a madcap heist romp, they might look elsewhere. The Old Man & the Gun is at once a tribute to a legendary film career, but mostly, it’s a quiet, thoughtfully observed character study. It’s rather slight, but the charm of its performers takes it over the finish line. Redford says this is his last role before retirement, and if that turns out to be the case, he’ll have gone out on a high note.