What do we see when we look at Robert Redford? Now in his 80s, the actor has reached that moment of his career, familiar only to performers of a certain age and legacy, when his mere presence confers the weight of history. Redford’s never been much of a chameleon; even when he was young, it was usually just him up there, the rugged, handsome cowboy with the sly smile and the spark of mischief in his eyes. But to watch him now is to have not just his career but also a whole bygone era of movie stardom flash before your eyes. In the last few years, filmmakers have used that accordingly: trusting his iconic familiarity to fill in the gaps of character left by the wordless All Is Lost; triggering our memories of a whole paranoid genre in Captain America: The Winter Soldier; employing his reputation as a proxy for that of another living legend, Dan Rather, in Truth.
Writer-director David Lowery (A Ghost Story) has played this game, too. His earthy Disney remake Pete’s Dragon leaned heavily on Redford’s gravitas, a quality the actor just wears like it’s a part of his wardrobe. But with The Old Man & The Gun (Grade: B+), Lowery takes the act of capitalizing on the star’s almost mythic stature to its logical endpoint. In what he’s insisted will be his final screen performance, Redford plays Forrest Tucker, a real-life career criminal famous for both a full lifetime of heists and an incredible talent for busting out of prison. (He’s said to have escaped the big house at least 16 times, and to have mounted maybe a dozen more unsuccessful attempts.) Watching Tucker smoothly, politely knock off a bank in the film’s opening minutes, we don’t ever forget that we’re really just seeing Redford, twinkle in his eye and pep in his step, be Redford. But that’s the whole point of a movie like The Old Man & The Gun: Lowery, whose worship of 1970s cinema borders on fetish, has made a requiem for a career and an era, allowing his star to say goodbye to the desperados of his New Hollywood past.
Somewhat counterintuitively, the focus is not on Tucker’s frequent, remarkable escapes, which get relegated to an admittedly pretty amazing montage. Instead, Lowery’s script, which takes loose inspiration from a New Yorker article, zeroes in on a late chapter of the bank robber’s life: a period in the early 1980s, when he was leading a geriatric trio dubbed The Over The Hill Gang (his accomplices are played here by Danny Glover and Tom Waits) on a cross-state crime spree. Lowery doesn’t mine the robberies themselves for suspense; tellingly, the one moment where anyone gets hurt happens entirely off camera, and every teller Tucker sticks up inevitably ends up describing him as a perfect gentleman. The movie is more invested in his romance with a widow played by Sissy Spacek, a legend of the screen in her own right; the pair’s scenes together glow with an easy, genuinely sexy chemistry. Even the rumpled detective (Casey Affleck) on Tucker’s tail seems to regard his mark with faint amusement, even admiration. “If you caught him, you wouldn’t get to chase him anymore,” the lawman’s adorable daughter astutely posits.
This is, in other words, an affectionate and especially laidback crime lark, one whose power hinges almost entirely on the audience’s relationship with other movies. “You hear a story, you see a picture, you put two and two together,” one of the detective’s interview subjects says. She’s talking about how people confuse others’ reflections of the past for their own, but her words could also describe the way The Old Man & The Gun forges its emotional connection, linking Redford’s image—and all the history that comes flooding back with it—to Tucker’s true-crime story. Lowery doesn’t miss an opportunity to conjure the ghosts of his star’s filmography, using old photos and footage; one wonders if he made this movie just for the opportunity to get The Sundance Kid back on a horse. Redford, to be clear, seems to be having as much fun as the perennially smiling thief he’s playing. Certainly, he couldn’t have picked a more appropriate swan song than a movie that casts him as a charming rogue moving inevitably toward some form of retirement. (That the character lives in a house by a cemetery is pretty on the nose, though Lowery is smart enough to let someone note its obviousness aloud.)
For all of its Nixon-era affectation—a slow zoom here, a Paul Simon song there, the grainy splendor of Joe Anderson’s imitation Néstor Almendros cinematography—The Old Man & The Gun made me think, too, of a more modern crime-movie confection: Steven Soderbergh’s effortlessly cool Out Of Sight, which I re-watched very recently for our 1998 Week coverage. Lowery, like Soderbergh, stylishly jumbles some of his conversations, exhibiting a relaxed panache. And isn’t it possible to see Tucker as the twilight-years version of George Clooney’s Jack Foley, still robbing banks with a smile several decades later? There’s even a line in Out Of Sight about “Robert Redford when he was young.” Watching a film like The Old Man & The Gun, it’s hard not to draw these kind of connections, seeing American movies as one long outlaw continuum.