At the start of the year, Daniel Day-Lewis apparently bid acting goodbye with a riveting performance as fastidious fashionista Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread. Now, to close out 2018, Robert Redford has intimated that he’s ready to ride off into the sunset on the back of his impossibly charismatic turn as true-life bank robber Forrest Tucker in The Old Man and the Gun.
Based on David Grann’s 2003 New Yorker article, writer/director David Lowery’s splendidly crafted dramatic thriller is an ode to the New Hollywood of the ’60s and ’70s – the era that made Redford a star. It even weaves in footage from the octogenarian actor’s old movies, back when he was a kid and the sun danced in his hair. That such a technique, married to desaturated 16mm images, doesn’t make The Old Man and the Gun a fossil trapped in amber is testament to its breezy style and ebullient emotions. Neither too clever for its own good nor simply a nostalgia-trip pastiche aimed only at chin-strumming cinephiles, it is, in a word, fun. And so damn charming it makes your heart twinkle like Redford’s eyes.
We pick up the action in 1981, as 76-year-old career-crim Tucker has just busted out of San Quentin - his 16th successful prison break - and is moseying into a bank armed with an unloaded pistol, an aw-shucks grin, and a devastating wink. Minutes later, fleeing a squad of wailing cop cars, he pulls over to assist a woman having engine trouble. It’s a ruse, and the cops duly screech past. But an instant connection flickers between Tucker and his unwitting decoy.
She is Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a horse trainer and a widow. He tells her, over coffee, that he is in sales, and then thinks better of it and writes the truth on a slip of paper. She reads it, doesn’t quite believe it, mistaking it as part of their flirtation. During the remainder of the movie they will meet several times more, and their chemistry pops like corn. Meanwhile, another relationship develops between Tucker and the obsessive Texas ’tec on his trail, John Hunt (Casey Affleck). These are two guys addicted to what they do, who come to admire one another, who even share a bond of affection. You might say they are laid-back, amiable, soulful versions of De Niro’s Neil McCauley and Pacino’s Vincent Hanna in Heat, and likewise they enjoy a mid-movie meet sure to prickle viewers’ skin.
There the comparisons end. No running street battles with booming automatic weapons here; just a genial gentleman who ambles up to a succession of bank tellers, asks to be directed to the manager, and then suggests, with a sunny smile, they load up a bag. It’s how the Sundance Kid might have spent his twilight years had he not been punctured by a hail of bullets in Bolivia.
The vanity-free Redford is magnificent, allowing DoP Joe Anderson to zoom in on every crag and crevice of his face in the knowledge that Father Time is powerless to dim his sparkling blue eyes, his star wattage. Redford’s performance celebrates the renegade spirit even as Lowery celebrates an era of American movies as golden as his star’s barnet, and, of course, that star himself.
The tenderness is there in the tactility of the film stock, in Daniel Hart’s jazzy score, in the period appropriate tunes (The Kinks, Simon and Garfunkel)… together they comprise a poetic love letter that draws on the wider history mentioned above but also personal bonds: Lowery’s elegiac crime movie Ain’t Them Bodies Saints broke out at Redford’s Sundance Film Festival, and the star lent all of his grace and charm to a role in Lowery’s studio debut, Pete’s Dragon.
Crucially, however, the love-in is paused long enough for Lowery to offer a glimpse of the darker side of Tucker’s compulsion – we’re introduced, briefly, to the wounded daughter (Elisabeth Moss) that he doesn’t even know he has.
Also at the top of her considerable game is Spacek, who likewise brings baggage. Jewel is older and wiser, but bears traces of Badlands’ Holly, feeling a frisson of excitement at the thought of Tucker pulling heists. She is mesmerising. But make no mistake: this is Redford’s (last picture) show, and it serves a glorious goodbye. We can only hope that he changes his mind and, like Tucker, can’t stop doing the thing he loves.
- Release date: Out now (US)/December 7, 2018 (UK)
- Certificate: PG-13 (US)/12A (UK)
- Running time: 93 mins