How does a legend retire? This query haunts the latest picture by A Ghost Story director David Lowery. It is both an in fiction question, and a metafictional one, in The Old Man and the Gun. The film ponders what to do with both Robert Redford the actor and Forrest Tucker, the debonair bank Robber he portrays. Should one concede the work they do to settle down, or continue what makes them happy no matter what.
The answer isn’t quite settled through the picture. As a love letter to the icon of Redford it’s achingly sentimental. Creating contexts for Redford to dash and charm every person he meets. Whether it’s with a wry smile, a wink of the eye, or a witty speech to calm the nerves of the people whose money he is taking. His success here exists in his elder statesman charm, and the accumulation of experience as an American icon. Redford isn’t really putting up too much of a facade as another person, but instead allowing himself the opportunity to exhibit his greatest skills as a screen presence one last time. From his performance on screen this feels like one last farewell.
But from a structural place the film also plays into the fantasy that there will always be more. That the concept of one last job can always be thrown out the window for the passions of our lives. And we can always break out and start over. It’s the classic dream of America, that our past can’t define us, and only our current actions will. And as the final credits appear on screen one is left to wonder if this really is it. If Redford does return this might be an empty exercise in nostalgia for a legend.
Luckily there’s enough here to sweep those concerns away for the time being. One is Lowery’s style: an intentional throwback to late seventies crime capers that feels like it fell out of a hole. The grainy 16mm photography, the frequent use of zooms and pans, the snappy montages, the shuffling jazz/funk score, and kitschy font choice. It might come off as pastiche if the everyone here didn’t play it so sincerely. There is nothing inauthentic about the choices made, as both Lowery and the actors dedicate their efforts to make every frame sing with the scuzzy warmth of the era.
Speaking of the other actors; the side players both provide some of the finest moments of the film and its one big weakness. The best here is Sissy Spacek (a seventies legend in her own right) who gets to have a lovely flirtation with Redford’s character. Their late in life romance is the obvious highlight. As each imbue their dates with a relaxed, lived-in chemistry, while also highlighting the melancholy of their age. They are aware that the end is soon, but that won’t stop the flirtation at hand.
The rest of Tucker’s crew is filled out by Danny Glover and Tom Waits, who both perform the “too old for this shit” role with aplomb. Waits in particular has a great presence, and has one of the funniest scenes in the flick, turning what might be the lyrics to one of his songs into a hilarious monologue.
The big black spot here is Casey Affleck. Who, outside of all the assault stuff swirling around him, turns in mealy mouthed performance that feels like all affectation with little purpose. His story consistently feels like an obligation rather than a genuine interest, and kind of just ends in a manner that doesn’t add any substance to the work. He is given the space and interiority to seem like a person, but it rings hollow. Lowery seems to recognize this, as he keeps this plot line firmly in the sidelines, but it’s always a disappointment to cut back Affleck’s cop character as he runs through the rote procedures of his position.
Outside of the misstep (I hope Lowery has ended his Affleck infatuation) this is kind of the perfect Sunday matinee fair. Come in with a cup of coffee, lean back, and soak in the wrinkles of Redford’s smile and the joy of his chemistry with Spacek. Oh, and bring your parents, they’ll absolutely love it.