Robert Redford’s cinematic swan-song The Old Man & the Gun is a thoroughly nice film, if not a great one, writes MacDara Conroy
Robert Redford’s silver screen swan-song is one that seems purposefully engineered by its director David Lowery (A Ghost Story) to bring the legend’s career full circle, with a cheeky title card (‘This story, also, is mostly true’) being only the first echo of the Western crime caper that made his name back in 1969 — and indeed of his career ever since.
The Old Man & the Gun is ostensibly a biopic of Forrest Tucker, the subject of an article in The New Yorker that mythologised the lifelong criminal and his astounding prison escape attempts over the decades. You wouldn’t really know that going in cold, however, as the story is presented much more like a light-hearted redo of David Mackenzie’s neo-noir Hell or High Water. In place of two grizzled brothers robbing banks to pay off the mortgage on their ranch, we get Redford as a dapper Southern gentleman who charms his way to thousands of ill-gotten dollars, not out of any sense of moral outrage against the banking system or a Robin Hood complex or some such greater theme, but simply because he can, and he’s very good at it.
It’s almost refreshing to find a film with such a simple premise as this in the year 2018. Redford’s Forrest and his geriatric accomplices Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits in a rare more-than-a-cameo role) blaze a trail of stick-ups across the US southwest, pursued by a bored detective (Casey Affleck, an old favourite of Lowery’s) stimulated by the challenge of snaring the so-called ‘Over-the-Hill Gang’. Along the way Forrest meets a woman (Sissy Spacek) who tempts him away from his life of crime. And that’s about it.
But perhaps it’s too simple. It certainly wears its metaphors on its sleeve (to mix another). It’s more than a little on the nose that the character played by Spacek, the woman who steals Forrest’s heart, the prize of a heist he challenges himself to pull off, is named Jewel. It verges on pantomime when the sunny smile leeches from Redford’s face as soon as he’s pulled away from the things he lived for.
There are some smart touches, mind. There’s a deliberate distance between Redford’s old man and the gun of the title. We only ever see it explicitly at a remove; next to him on the passenger seat of his car, for instance. The film consciously eschews the violence that gun represents. The one robbery that goes even slightly awry, resulting in a wound to one of Forrest’s crew, is skipped over entirely. We don’t need to see it; that kind of carry-on would be unseemly of our gentleman thief.
But we lose something in the process. While the gun is an interesting literary device, it also pokes a hole to let out the tension; heart-racing moments are few in a film that’s the epitome of an easy stretch. Glover and Tom Waits as Redford’s partners in crime only raise the blood pressure — in a good way, but they raise it nonetheless — so they’re criminally underdeveloped and dispensed with at the nearest opportunity. The thread of a subplot for Affleck’s detective, the man who might get his quarry but not the just rewards, is also teased but snipped off for a neater finish.
It’s only in its dying minutes, too, that the film remembers its supposed to be about Forrest Tucker, not Robert Redford, and breezes through the story of the former’s life in montage — though even that is ultimately more of a tribute to the latter than anything else, with clips of films made in Redford’s younger days. It’s a reminder of a splendid career as the star bows out in a thoroughly nice film, if not a great one.
The Old Man & the Gun opened nationwide on Friday December 7th