Few actors are truly cross-generational in the manner media outlets make them out to be. Robert Redford, however, has earned this distinction. His latest film, The Old Man & the Gun, is a touching tribute to Redford’s charming persona as his film career winds down. Director David Lowery loosely bases The Old Man & the Gun on the actual career criminal Forrest Tucker, a smiling gentleman with extraordinary charm who conducted bank robberies with ultimate courtesy and kindness. Tucker, a creature of unbreakable habit, remained determined and adventurous, still robbing banks at age 78. Redford as Tucker reveals the spirit of this legendary criminal and all aging go-getters with the expressed sentiment of “keep on keepin’ on.” In this film, Redford, himself, at age 82, keeps trying, and succeeds, in charming his way into the hearts of the audience.
To fully appreciate the significance and symbolism of The Old Man & the Gun, it is worthwhile to briefly reflect upon the longevity of Redford’s acting career. Redford’s screen presence started in the 1960s on TV shows, including Playhouse 90 (1960) and The Twilight Zone (1962). He became an American heartthrob via the play Barefoot in the Park (1963), followed by the film version in 1967. His celebrity status soared as the suave sidekick of Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973), followed by his portrayal of Bob Woodward in the screen adaption of All the President’s Men (1976). In the 1980s, Redford’s biggest hit was Out of Africa (1985), and his film presence continued into the 1990s and 2000s. Generation X indie directors and cinema buffs know Redford as the brains behind what started as an art retreat and quickly grew into the Sundance Film Festival. Speaking on behalf of my generation, we know him mostly for his pro-environmental activities and his rare characterization as an evil villain, Alexander Pierce, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). Redford returns to form once again, and perhaps for the last time, in The Old Man & the Gun.
In spite of respecting Redford’s accomplished cinematic career, as both an actor and director, I dare say that this presumed grand sendoff of him in The Old Man & the Gun is more like Redford riding out on a mule, rather than riding off on the stallion he came in on 51 years ago. It is sweet, and sad, to see Redford at this advanced age, playing this charming role that requires little energy and poses relatively no acting challenge. Nevertheless, the nostalgic thrills in this film do provide some fun highlights.
The best aspect of The Old Man & the Gun is the chemistry between Redford and Sissy Spacek. Redford is at the top of his game as a romantic and feels right at home. In the character of Jewel, Lowery brings a new angle to the traditional female interests of Redford’s characters. More appealing than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s plain, boring Etta Place (Katherine Ross) and the obnoxious reformer Corrie Bratter (Jane Fonda) from Barefoot in the Park, Jewel is the maturation of the perfect woman for an aging rebel. She complements Tucker well, anchoring down, but not completely eliminating his rogue habits. Tucker, likewise gets her to be less restrictive, thinking outside the practical and going after dreams of a better life, albeit a bit late. The nostalgia for the films of yesteryear works perfectly when these two are on screen together. When Tucker courts her in diners, while discussing the hardships of life, it all feels genuine and sincere.
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Lowery attempts the same sort of magic when exploring the parasitic relationship between cops and robbers, but the chemistry between John Hunt (Casey Affleck) and Tucker is never fully realized to a dramatic point. Lowery weakly touches on the infinite game between ongoing rivals and their quest for perfection, but he falls short. The Tucker-Hunt relationship and interaction is a Sunday matinee version of the Jean Valjean-Inspector Javert dynamic in Les Miserables (2012).
Without Newman to play off anymore, Redford, alone, must combine the deceased actor’s characteristic street smarts with his own brazen and boyish charms, all done with ease. Redford’s rebellious nature plays well with Tucker’s reported personality, and this shows just how much fun Redford appears to be having on screen. His crime partners in The Old Man & the Gun, Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits) really do not earn their paychecks, as they are no substitute for Newman. Perhaps Lowery is to blame for not really giving them the chance.
Ultimately, Lowery has good ideas but does not capitalize, failing to give them enough breathing space to flourish. The historical accuracy of the Tucker events take a backseat for Lowery, serving as the framework for his loftier goals of delivering a universal human message. Lowery is much more intrigued with examining time, the passage of time and how the mass collective subconscious has crystallized Redford in time. He sprinkles these recurrent themes throughout The Old Man & the Gun, popping up in background conversations and other visual imagery. Hidden throughout the film are Easter eggs and callbacks to previous Redford classics, however, Lowery does a disservice to his agenda by hindering it with unnecessary exposition and clunky editing.
Devoted Redford fans will likely put The Old Man & the Gun on their cinematic bucket list. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As Tucker’s robbery victims recognize, there is something about the man’s wit, schoolboy charm and iconic smile that many can’t help but love in with. For Redford devotees, every time the icon actor smiles on screen, they will likely smile back and gladly let him steal their hearts. For the uninitiated, the better bet is to watch the old Redford classics.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.