David Lowery's The Old Man & the Gun is a lovely, low-key exit for screen legend Robert Redford, who has said it's his last film, and who obviously wants to leave quietly.
In fact, Redford's only regret may be that he didn't end his career by starring in Lowery's last movie, Ghost Story, in which the male lead wore a bedsheet most of the time. Though regarded as one of the most glamorous movie stars of his generation, the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid star was always uncomfortable with that status, and thought it detracted from serious consideration of his work.
So it's a nice gesture that he's chosen The Old Man and the Gun as his exit vehicle, gifting fans with heaping helpings of his relaxed charm, making a nod to the Sundance Kid, and even the flimflam fun of The Sting.
The movie is based on the true story of Forrest Tucker, a lifelong criminal known for bank robberies and for prison escapes. He excelled at both and so continued his career well into his 60s and 70s. This is where we meet him (in the early 1980s), working with two old friends – played by Tom Waits and Danny Glover, who add authentic and funny notes of well-worn camaraderie. The trio avoids the spotlight by targeting small, rural, lightly guarded banks throughout the Midwest. On jobs, Tucker wears a suit and tie and fedora (not to mention the gun in the title), and leaves with modest amounts of money. Afterward, tellers describe him as "polite" and "happy."
Newspapers call them gentleman bandits, but only after police detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck) links the crimes, and starts to develop a composite of the ringleader, and a modus operandi for the group.
Tucker, meanwhile, has commenced a romance with a Texas widow, Jewel, played beautifully by Sissy Spacek, whose character is lonely but not vulnerable or needy, and who allows Tucker to edge into her life while displaying an interesting mixture of attraction and suspicion.
There is another important relationship in Old Man – this one between lawman and outlaw. Not so much a battle of wits as an offbeat study in dovetailing psychologies, Affleck's character is facing the midlife blahs, and his pursuit of Tucker is a starting point for a healthy reevaluation of his life and career. Tucker is not the sort to suffer a midlife crisis. He is indeed "happy" in his work. He knows what he wants to do, knows what he's good at, and plans to keep doing it as long as possible. The detective's pursuit of Tucker is the loosest kind of procedural, more character study than crime story.
Redford's charm puts this over, but there is an element of selfishness to Tucker, hinted at in a scene of Hunt visiting a young woman (Elisabeth Moss) who has unflattering details about his background. She also has some old photos – purportedly of a young Tucker, but they are obviously stills from old Redford movies (or plays), and serve to remind us of the famously handsome icon in his prime.
They also remind us of the passing of time, and contribute to the movie's sweetly elegiac feel, also augmented by Redford's graceful nod to the good old days, to his audience. His departure, if it stands, is a kind of playful wink that's designed to leave you wanting something you'll never get – a sequel.
The Old Man and the Gun
Directed by David Lowery. With Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, Casey Affleck, Tom Waits and Danny Glover. Distributed by Fox Searchlight.
Parents' guide: PG-13
Running time: 93 minutes.
Playing at: Bryn Mawr, Ritz Five, AMC Voorhees.