"He was sort of...a gentleman," says a nonplussed bank teller to an inquiring cop in the aftermath of a robbery. Forrest Tucker is the gentleman she’s talking about, an ‘old man’ who happens to also be movie legend Robert Redford. In his smart blue suit and trilby hat, Forrest always comes dressed for the occasion, and when women cry during the heist, he does his best to comfort them. For Redford, who personifies mythic movie Americana in his lined face, this outlaw romanticism is perfect. If you’re searching for blood lust, fatalism, or the darker parts of the soul in the crime narrative of The Old Man and The Gun, you’ll be searching in the wrong place.
In David Lowery’s latest film, the storyline is uncomplicated. It’s based on David Grann’s essay for The New Yorker about real septuagenarian bank robber Forrest Tucker. In the early 1980s in Texas, Forrest and his equally aged accomplices robbed numerous banks without casualties, earning themselves the name ‘The Over the Hill Gang.’ A Texas detective named John Hunt (Casey Affleck) is determined to catch them, and uncovers Tucker’s storied history as a career criminal in so doing. In the meantime, a gentle romance blooms between Tucker and local rancher Jewel (Sissy Spacek). As both Spacek and Affleck learn more about the enigmatic bank robber, they find themselves charmed by his ineffable, almost childlike desire to cause trouble.
Golden-haired and fine-featured as ever, Redford is still the quintessential leading man, evoking swooning nostalgia and twinkly-eyed charm. Spacek, who runs a horse ranch in real life, is the down-to-earth good woman who falls for him—but not unreservedly. These characters are archetypes rather than people, built from decades of gossamer movie fantasies, and it’s a storytelling risk that pays off. In their storied youths, these were two of the most American of movie stars—Redford the cornfed California jock, Spacek the freckled small-town redhead. Together onscreen for the first time in both their long careers, they bring not only experience but a rapport with moviegoers that borders on the magical. Casey Affleck is understated and tenacious as a schlepping detective on the trail of the robbers, while Danny Glover and Tom Waits round out Redford’s accomplices as a convincingly hangdog rogue’s gallery.
Lowery’s independent sensibility is mostly restrained here, and the director adopts a more classical style befitting of the material. Nonetheless, his little stylistic departures are notable: the occasional pan that moves beyond the subjects in the frame, or the beautifully self-aware sequence where cop and criminal meet in a diner bathroom. A highlight comes three-quarters of the way into the film, with a montage of prison escapes both comic and nostalgic that utilizes brief clips from Redford’s films of the late sixties.
It can’t have been an easy task to synthesize over five decades of a Hollywood legacy in one little crime film, but that’s the gift that Lowery gives to us here, and perhaps to Redford, too, who has always excelled at playing nonconformists with a heart of gold. The Old Man and The Gun may not be breaking any new ground, but it revisits old turf in a way that’s marvelously satisfying. It’s a homage both to the glamorous cops-and-robbers of a bygone age and to Redford himself. On the subject of the latter, it might be said best by two onscreen cops discussing their perp:
"Someone should have told him to quit while he was ahead."
"But...if you find something you love…"