Warning: spoilers ahead.
When it comes to Hollywood legends, there are few who compare to Robert Redford. The career of this Academy Award-winning actor and director has spanned six decades, over which he has become one of the most beloved filmmakers of all time. Not only that, but his founding of the Sundance Film Festival in 1978 cemented his reputation as a champion of independent films. It’s safe to say that without Redford, the landscape of American cinema would have a vastly different shape than it does today. This brings us to his newest, and final, performance in front of the camera: The Old Man and the Gun, which reunites Redford with his Pete’s Dragon (2016) director David Lowery.
From the opening sequence, Lowery, who also wrote the screenplay, has very clear intentions for The Old Man and the Gun: to pay homage to Redford and to the movies considered by many to represent his peak, namely The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In Old Man, Redford’s Forrest Tucker is a scoundrel in the same way the Sundance Kid and Johnny Hooker are scoundrels: he’s smooth, charming, and possesses a Robin Hood-like persona.
Tucker is a bank robber and has been all his life. But his goal isn’t necessarily to make it rich; he’s more thrilled by the act of stealing. As one character aptly summates, “I’m not talking about making a living; I’m just talking about living.” While Tucker’s crew, Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits) dream up a final “big score” that will allow them to potentially retire, the audience knows that no amount of money would ever tempt Tucker into giving up his way of life — he squirrels his money away in the floorboards of his house, not for a rainy day, but simply because he has nothing to spend it on.
When he meets Jewel (Sissy Spacek) while deftly dodging the police after a close call at a bank, all of that seems as if it might change. However, even afterward, his penchant for thievery never wanes, and he gently tempts her into his world. She resists, and this small, star-crossed romantic arc is the emotional heart of Lowery’s quietly charming film. As we learn more about Tucker’s criminal past (which Lowery uses as a thinly veiled excuse to show old clips of a younger, hunkier Redford) we come to understand that while Tucker might yearn for a romantic connection, his first love is “the game,” evidenced not only by the arrests and escapes in his wake but also the wreckage of a spurned lover and forgotten daughter (Elisabeth Moss, in a nice cameo performance).
Old Man is a quiet movie, tinged with humor and good feeling. The two sources of tension in the film — Tucker’s capture and his doomed romance with Jewel — both feel inevitable in a sad, but easy way. Tucker is being pursued by the FBI and a local cop, John Hunt (Casey Affleck), but Tucker and Hunt aren’t necessarily on opposing sides; instead, they are simply two men yearning for purpose in their lives. While Tucker has found his, Hunt is still searching (for most of the movie). Their interactions are coy and mostly incidental, and all of it would be in line with the rest of the film’s charm if not for Affleck’s history of sexual harassment. It left me asking: If this character is so incidental to the plot, and the actor has chosen to portray him so… let’s say, poorly cast, why is he in the movie at all?
Affleck’s presence is an unfortunate footnote to an otherwise fitting sendoff for Redford, who delivers a vintage performance that is sure to make dedicated fans recall his filmography with fondness and perhaps even inspire new fans to uncover some of his old gems. The supporting cast, Waits, Glover, and Moss, are excellent, if limited. And Spacek matches Redford’s old-time-y charm and even manages to steal a scene or two.
However, while Old Man might be the best movie Redford has made since All is Lost (2013), it remains a somewhat minor film. But maybe that’s the way Redford prefers it — to exit not with a bang, so to speak, but with a bow.
Watch Now: The short films of David Lowery.