If Robert Redford sticks to his pledge that he is now retired from acting, he is going out on a very good note with The Old Man & the Gun. This warm and gritty tale of compulsive real-life bank robber Forrest Tucker, who escaped from prison 16 times over the course of a long career that only ended when he was in his late 70s, is first and foremost a story about a man who loved his work. This sentiment could certainly be applied to Redford as well, and writer-director David Lowery makes a point of filming it in a 1970s style that vividly recalls the actor’s heyday playing outlaws and other rascally characters. Longtime fans of the actor will savor this enjoyable character piece, so Fox Searchlight’s main challenge will be to entice some younger viewers to come appreciate old-timers’ still-vital talents.
Lowery’s adaptation of David Grann’s New Yorker article about Tucker’s unique career concentrates on the criminal’s late period in 1981, which was merely a continuation of what he had been doing since he was a teenager. He still robbed banks, by this time with a couple of fellow senior citizens played here by Danny Glover and Tom Waits in a self-styled “Over-the-Hill Gang,” never carried a loaded gun, was polite and even personable in his robbery techniques (“He was such a gentleman,” one bank manager tells the police afterwards) and clearly enjoyed his work, arguably too much so.
Redford goes out on top (if he sticks to his guns).
If this sounds a bit like Hollywood glamorization of a career criminal, so be it, especially when the old man is played by Redford, whose full head of hair, alert mental antenna and nimbleness would put to shame many men decades his junior. His buddies in crime certainly give off the air of wanting to call it a day.
But the seductive craftiness with which Tucker approaches and then charms farm widow Jewel (Sissy Spacek) over a diner meal makes you warm to this old dog who is still convincingly in the game, and it’s okay to side with him because he’s so considerate of the bank employees he inconveniences when divesting them of their holdings. “I’m just making a living,” he insists.
Law enforcement, of course, is not interested in the good character of this habitual criminal, and one Texas lawman, John Hunt (Casey Affleck, returning to work with Lowery again after A Ghost Story), takes a particular interest in stopping the old man in his tracks. But Tucker effectively vanishes from sight for a period, partly through mild disguise but mostly, at this point, in the company of Jewel, who is beguiled by the man from the start and delightfully startled to be pulled into a late-age romance, the full nature of which is downplayed in the film.
Nonetheless, the relationship between the two attractive seniors fills the film out with a distinctive allure; their surprise and delight in what they’ve found with each other is palpable, and so lively is the rapport between Redford and Spacek that it makes one regret they’d never worked together before.
All the same, Tucker can’t be pinned down for long, and he and his cohorts continue their spree from Texas to the East. By now, the robber has grabbed the national spotlight, with one broadcaster challenging his pursuer Hunt by saying, “Here’s hoping time doesn’t catch up with them before you do.”
The film serves up a nifty compendium of its hero’s prior escapes, including one amazing one from San Quentin, but it’s not all fun and games, as he’s finally apprehended and sent to prison once again. While there, Tucker sends Jewel a letter describing his 16 escapes and wittily leaves number 17 blank, setting the stage for the final act.
The film makes plenty of mileage from trading on the charm of a good bad boy, and Redford’s long experience in playing such roles serves him beautifully here; he knows by now he doesn’t have to push his attractiveness to be ingratiating. His work here is natural, subtle, ingratiating and doesn’t miss a trick. In a montage indicating Tucker’s criminal career, there’s a quick clip of Redford in his 1960s physical glory playing an escaped convict in The Chase, which is just enough to sharply remind viewers of the man’s earlier self.
Stylistically, Lowery was shrewd to realize that making the film look gritty and rather rough was critical to preventing the feeling that it was glamorizing Redford and the character. He and cinematographer Joe Anderson therefore shot on film in Super 16 and roughed up the look a bit. What emerges is a movie that physically resembles something like The Friends of Eddie Coyle from 1973, a perfect fit for a story like this.
The score by Daniel Hart and a vast selection of well-chosen musical excerpts add greatly to the persuasive mood.
Production companies: Conde Nast Entertainment, Sailor Bear Film, Identity Films, Tango Productions, Wildwood Enterprises
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Danny Glover, Tika Sumpter, Isiah Whitlock Jr., John David Washington, Tom Waits, Sissy Spacek, Elisabeth Moss
Director: David Lowery
Screenwriter: David Lowery, based on the New Yorker article by David Grann
Producers: James D. Stern, Dawn Ostroff, Jeremy Steckler, Antony Mastromauro, Bill Holderman, Toby Halbrooks, James M. Johnston, Robert Redford
Executive producers: Patrick Newall, Lucas Smith, Julie Goldstein, Tim Headington, Karl Spoerri, Marc Schmidherny
Director of photography: Joe Anderson
Production designer: Scott Kuzio
Costume designer: Annell Brodeur
Editor: Lisa Zeno Churgin
Music: Daniel Hart
Venue: Telluride Film Festival