Robert Redford chose to end his acting career with a remarkable performance in a role which suits him like no other. Having read The New Yorker piece by David Grann on Forrest Tucker, the notorious, yet irresistibly smooth bank robber who spent his life in and out of jail, boasting a measly eighteen successful escapes, the revered actor resolved to give this imagination-stirring story a cinematic existence, and made it all his own by creating an ultimately Redfordian screen persona in The Old Man & the Gun. Titled in a tongue-in-cheek allusion to Hemingway’s famous novel, the film was written and directed by David Lowery, the young helmer known for imaginative, delicate and visually enthralling pictures, such as Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and A Ghost Story. Given an opportunity to collaborate with a legend of cinema, Lowery has once again demonstrated his knack for telling quirky stories with unrivalled wit and charm, as well as cinematic flair and intelligence in conveying human individuality.
Exquisitely partnered with two amiable rogues Waller (Tom Waits) and Teddy (Danny Glover), as the leader of The Over the Hill Gang, Redford is in his element as an outlaw gentleman capable of coaxing officious bank clerks into filling his briefcase full of money, with little more than a fleeting sight of a pistol, winsome smile and confident glimmer in the eye. He is just as splendid at employing his lure to conquer Jewel (Sissy Spacek), whom he originally meets on a motorway, chivalrously offering her assistance with a broken car, while in fact using her as an effective cover from the police. The narrative skilfully interweaves Forrest’s amorous and criminal endeavours with the professional struggle and family life of the ambitious, yet delightfully phlegmatic detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck), determined to capture the mysterious trio of elderly robbers.
As simple and understated as it may rightly seem, The Old Man & the Gun is a film of outstanding cinematic value. DP Joe Anderson shot the film in 16 mm, using a relatively slow Kodak stock and underexposure in order to achieve a grainy, 80s look in fitting with the story’s timeline and its whimsical mood. The soft and dreamy visual aesthetic thus attained has its ideal complement in Daniel Hart’s fuzzy soundtrack, featuring original pieces by Jackson C. Frank (Blues Run The Gun) and The Kinks (Lola). Subtly humorous and disarmingly warm in its approach to the iconic character, the film is a perfect realisation of its director’s fantasy about the criminal underworld without the grime and grit of the actual villainy. As Lowery has openly admitted in numerous interviews, his idea for the film was to circumvent the true crime reality and… get away with it – as does his filmic hero, whose archetypal aura is due to the helmer’s efforts at stripping the real-life criminal down to the very core of his thrill-loving persona. Lowery deals with the challenges of the caper genre by adapting its conventions to his own idiosyncratic purposes. Rather than the crime itself, what carries importance for him is the driving force of its perpetrator, his personal stimulus and strength of character. For Redford’s elderly villain does not rob banks for financial gain. “I’m not talking about making a living. I’m just talking about living”, sounds Forrest’s dictum recalled, with a great gusto and unconcealed fondness, by his once-upon-a-time defence attorney (wonderful Robert Longstreet). It is a line which rings in the ears long after the film has ended, such is its power of expression in summing up the picture’s premise.
Redford excels at conveying Tucker’s evasive presence. Playful and jovial in the pursuit of his uncontrollable vice, this smooth operator oozes an appeal to which even the indefatigable detective Hunt is ultimately bound to succumb. Glowing with the borrowed light of Redford’s charisma, most apparent in the magnificent restroom scene, Forrest seems more a spectral vision, the Platonic idea of a loveable gangster contained in a celluloid imprint of the actor’s physical existence, than a – no matter how extraordinary – filmic character. The endearing smile and boyish squint in Tucker’s eyes are so quintessentially Redfordian that in the course of watching the film it proves increasingly difficult to separate the role from its performer. And purposely so, as Lowery succeeds at making The Old Man & the Gun as much a life story of the mythical robber as of the legendary thespian impersonating him on screen. Having demonstrated his deep concern with time in the beautifully crafted metaphor of A Ghost Story, David Lowery ensures that Redford and Tucker blend into one, as they follow their equally fervent desires to leave a personal mark on the temporal continuum.
By incorporating footage from the actor’s early filmography (Chase, 1965) into the picture’s narrative, the director has managed to imbue his film with a compelling meta-cinematic commentary. In one of the most stunning sequences, Redford, perched on a horse in a glorious sunset, nearly defeated, watches a swarm of police cars coming to get him, from a hill above Jewel’s house. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) inevitably comes to the viewer’s mind. Later on, we are watching Tucker as he becomes utterly enraptured by a flick in a movie theatre (Two-lane Blacktop, 1971), his yearning for another bank spree hanging heavy in the air. Passion for cinema as the art of preserving ethereal moments in which dreams gain physical existence permeates every minute of Lowery’s film, as it pays tribute to one of the most recognisable figures of the silver screen, whose long trajectory is now inevitably coming to a closure.
However The Old Man & the Gun is most definitely a Redford’s show, it must be said that the film seems unthinkable without Sissy Spacek who is just as mesmerising in the part of Jewel. At once blushingly girlish and grand-motherly mature, she instills the film with a feminine grace, spirit, wisdom and warmth which ideally complement the lead’s suave conduct. Meanwhile, Casey Affleck as unhurried, laconic and somewhat quirky detective Hunt makes for Tucker’s worthiest opponent in a game of cat and mouse that the sly senior continually winds up a notch for his warped enjoyment. The whole cast is truly remarkable and it seems beyond question that Lowery brings out the best of his actors, guiding them firmly yet respectfully towards the desired end.
The latest in David Lowery’s oeuvre may or may not be Robert Redford’s last appearance on screen. What is far more important, though, is that it deserves to be called his best or at least one of his best films up to date. Having worked with a range of directors of varied visions, tastes and abilities, his acting genius has rarely been matched with a comparable filmmaking talent. Lowery’s artistic subtlety and incontestable love for the medium finally does justice to the actor’s stature and flair. A glorious ode to cinema and one of its brightest stars, The Old Man & the Gun is an exceptionally intelligent and enjoyable film inducing an infinite number of smiles. Seemingly light and pleasing, it has a solid core which, founded on the director’s enchantment with the hero’s zest for life, clearly points to his own untamed creative energy.
©Anna Bajor, Tracks & Frames, 2019