Word is that Robert Redford has chosen The Old Man & the Gun as his acting swan song, and it certainly has the right feel for such a movie. Except in a way it doesn’t. The thief Redford plays is the kind of guy who’s permanently unsatisfied with “one last job,” and continues to knock over banks despite having stolen enough resources to retire 50 times over. In fact, during the course of the movie he has to reverse engineer a use for his wads of hidden cash, rather than the need motivating the crime in the first place. No, this is a guy who just likes to rob banks. So, maybe the metaphor is that we haven’t actually seen the last of Redford on screen, because this is a guy who just can’t quit the movies.
Redford is “only” 82, so by the standards of some of his contemporaries, he could still have quite a long way to go. For example, the second 2018 movie directed by 88-year-old Clint Eastwood is set to release in the U.S. next month, and he stars in it as well. But for now we’ll take Redford at his word, and if this is the last Redford screen role, it contains enough of that boyish twinkle that has made audiences swoon for the better part of six decades.
How much else it contains is debatable. The movie is such frivolous fun that it seems to laugh at the very idea of deeper themes. Deeper themes are not some kind of minimum requirement for a film, but when it’s announced as the last film for a cinematic icon like Redford, the absence of anything weightier is more noticeable.
David Lowery’s follow-up to last year’s enchanting A Ghost Story is a lot more low concept. What does differentiate it from a hundred other heist films is that the men holding up the banks are geriatrics. Redford’s Forrest Tucker is the central character and the stick-up man, but he’s flanked by 72-year-old Danny Glover and relative whippersnapper Tom Waits (68) in pulling off their unassuming robberies. The fact that this was the early 1980s (and based on a true story) explains their ability to get away clean with modest sums from multiple banks, without even creating a stir and only really hinting at the presence of weapons. The thing most witnesses remember about Forrest, other than his stick-on moustache, is that he’s polite, a true gentleman.
Lowery really seems like the type of director who can bounce between the poles. A Ghost Story was a weird follow-up to the live-action Disney movie Pete’s Dragon, and The Old Man & the Gun is a weird follow-up to last year’s movie about a ghost wearing a bed sheet while watching over his house in purgatory. While all three films are satisfying to varying degrees, Old Man is the first that feels like it doesn’t make use of any particular vision on the part of the director. This is a rather pedestrian film that benefits greatly from having a charming cast. It just doesn’t seem clear what would have motivated Lowery to make it, and it’s not like he was just a director for hire as he wrote the thing as well.
That said, the charm of the actors does go a long way. Watching seasoned pros like Redford and Spacek – who had never worked together before – engage in some light romantic sparring is a toe-curling delight. Both are performers who exude a certain youthfulness, even though Spacek is also nearly five decades into her career. She has this refreshing manner of seeing the world through a child’s eyes, rather than a grandmother’s, and she gives a truly vibrant performance. Glover and Waits seem to be having a ton of fun as well.
The film’s pleasures are all on the surface, though. Sure, heist movies have given us plenty on the psychology of the thief, and in a way it’s a relief that Lowery doesn’t get bogged down on that. But without anything that tells us what makes Forrest tick, the movie feels pretty inconsequential. In fact, Forrest’s repeated return to a life that will eventually lead to ruin, without a compelling explanation for that return, leaves us kind of frustrated with him in the end. That gets in the way of the more melancholy frustration we should be feeling, watching Redford’s blue eyes twinkle for the last time.