A laid-back farewell to a legend.
Just like Robert Redford’s own eternally dazzling smile, David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun is welcoming, approachable, relaxed, and affable. Although ostensibly structured as crime thriller – it is based on the life of real-life bank robber and multiple prison escapee Forrest Tucker – The Old Man & the Gun moves gently and calmly, eager to stay at the pace of a gentle stroll. It is a film that invites one to sit in its living room, offers a cup of tea, and proceeds to spin yarns of the good old days while you listen raptly to its deceptively inconsequential anecdotes.
Forrest Tucker, for the uninitiated, was one of the most prolific career criminals of the 20th century. He reportedly escaped from 18 prisons, and made 12 additional attempts. His approach to robbing banks was a friendly one: He would enter a bank, wait for just the right moment, then show a gun to a teller or a manager, demanding cash. He wouldn’t threaten, badger, or cuss. He would converse, defer, ask nicely, and compliment. And he always left with a smile on his face. He was a bank robber by the very nature of his bemused politeness. It’s been said that his victims would speak kindly of him after the fact.
The filmmakers, of course, are using the life of Forrest Tucker as a lens through which audiences can ponder the effect Robert Redford has had on cinema. Redford, 82, still contains much of the breeziness that marked his more popular roles going back to the 1960s; his passion for acting and for cinema has remained largely undiminished. Forrest Tucker, in the world of The Old Man & the Gun, continued to rob banks because, well, it was a fun way to fill the days; he didn’t want to give it up merely because he was enjoying himself too much. Redford has announced that this will be his final screen role, but you can see the ambivalence in every well-earned smile-line on his face; He wants to walk away, yes, but he’s clearly spent the last 50-odd years of his career enjoying himself too much.
The Old Man & the Gun follows the end of Forrest Tucker’s career in the early 1980s when he was already in his mid-70s. In between bank robberies, Forrest schemes with the film’s other characters, all casually rich. Tucker hangs with his crime buddies (Danny Glover and Tom Waits), eludes the police (represented by Casey Affleck), and, most significantly, bonds gently and easily with Jewel (Sissy Spacek) a woman who effortlessly matches Forrest’s relaxed charm. Jewel will be the ground under Tucker’s feet, and their relationship is romantic in a laid back sort of way. Well past the age of foolish passion, Jewel and Forrest seem to finally know what they want, and are free to speak their minds. They are mutually impressed with each other, and, as one might predict, Redford and Spacek are great together.
It’s also a brisk film. Told in a retro-1981 style – complete with vintage fonts and photography (by Joe Anderson) that still contains the visible grain and washed out blues of a slightly faded Fujicolor print from 35 years ago – The Old Man & the Gun has a languid energy that’s hard to resist. If one was watching movies in 1981, they may get a pointed and rather deliberate pang of nostalgia. Not only are we invited to ponder the 60-year career of a legend (there is a brief re-purposed clip of Redford’s 1966 film The Chase) , but to recall wistfully a time when indie cinema was breathing more and more openly.
If this is Redford’s final film, perhaps it’s fitting that he step out with so little ceremony in a film that, overall, feels somewhat trifling. This is not a “blaze of glory” story, nor is it a clichéd Great Man narrative reeking of tacky deification. It’s Robert Redford giving us a wink as he simply steps out the door. We nod back in his direction, take a sip of beer, and sigh with a smirk.