Early in The Old Man and the Gun, the camera follows career bank robber Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) as he drives his getaway car rapidly through a small Texas town. His car disappears behind an old building, and as it does, the camera pans past a trio of children whitewashing a old wooden door. It’s a clever nod to Tom Sawyer and a tip toward the kind of American archetype we’re dealing with here – the charming, good-natured scamp. He wouldn’t hurt anyone on purpose, but he also loves to pull one over on people. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t want the rules to apply to him, and he doesn’t understand people who allow the rules to apply to them.
Forrest’s “Becky Thatcher” is a woman named Jewel (Sissy Spacek) who he meets during his getaway. Jewel owns a small horse ranch nearby, and they bond over their mutual dislike of other people telling them what to do. That’s perhaps not the best foundation on which to build a relationship, but when you’re in your late 70s, what more do you need? Jewel offers Forrest a chance to live for something other than the thrill of the chase, but her farm also represents something else that Forrest can’t accept – the idea of being put out to pasture. So he keeps pulling away and robbing another bank.
The casting here does a lot of the work. We love seeing Robert “Sundance Kid” Redford as the winsome ne’er-do-well, and Sissy Spacek has been charmed by his like before on the other end of her career in Terrence Malick’s Badlands. Their chemistry is everything you want it to be. Spacek and Redford perfectly capture that curious combination of rediscovered innocence and experienced gracefulness that makes it so fun to watch septuagenarians flirt. The Old Man and the Gun has a tendency to meander a bit in moments, but even when it does, I didn’t mind, because I was meandering arm-in-arm with Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek.
That meandering is a by-product of writer/director David Lowery’s style. He favors character over action, and he recognizes how small moments can be momentous for real people. The Old Man and the Gun is a cops-and-robbers crime drama like so many others, so we have our charismatic criminal doing “one last job;” the love interest who represents a way out; our beleaguered detective trying to find the will to keep at the work in spite of the disheartening bureaucracy (Casey Affleck doing just enough); the cop’s wife who just wants her husband to be happy and her home to be peaceful (Tika Sumpter as captivating here in his small role as she was in Southside With You); and the suspect criminal companions (Tom Waits and Danny Glover, brief but memorable). And the story hits all the requisite genre beats too, right down to the coffee shop meeting between the two opposing forces. Lowery throws a wrinkle into the mix though, because this is a true story, and Tucker maybe isn’t as without attachments as he thinks.
But Lowery’s style is a far cry from Michael Mann or Jean Pierre Melville. His storytelling is more understated, like that of early Malick, George Roy Hill, Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, or that of this movie’s star, Robert Redford. Sly not slick. Americana not cinematheque. Watching a Lowery film, you feel as if no one else would tell this story exactly this way today. We’re too fond of breathless pacing and pyrotechnics. Lowery is telling you a story over a cup of coffee in a diner. If you’re in the mood for it, it’s sublime. And it’s perfectly suited to focus on those small, momentous moments, as when the detective has a conversation with his kids about how the FBI might just be better than he is at catching guys like Forrest. It’s an admission of defeat, yes, but he’s also confessing it to his children, with whom he’s getting to spend the day.
We’re always looking for the questions motivating the movies we review at Reel Spirituality, and Lowery typically asks very simple yet profound questions: ‘Why do we have an innate drive toward family?” “What’s the use of belief?” “Why do we feel tied to places, and what would happen if we allowed those bonds to define us?”
In The Old Man and the Gun, I detect a similarly rich question: “Considering the costs, why are we compelled to do things we do?” The movie doesn’t offer an answer to this question, because it recognizes that the answer is different for each of us. It simply considers it and creates space for us to ask it of ourselves. In Forrest, the film sees a truth – if we don’t answer that question for ourselves, we stand to lose very much whatever else we might gain. “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Mark writes. The Old Man and the Gun says, “Then you best get to know your soul.”