[This is a re-post of my review from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. The Company You Keep opens tomorrow in limited release.]
Chase films probably shouldn’t feature septuagenarians. Robert Redford‘s The Company You Keep is two movies: one is a surprisingly entertaining investigative thriller, and the other is the most casual, least threatening chase flick I’ve ever seen. Redford has lined-up a tremendous cast, yet spreads them around in weak bit parts, leaving the majority of the picture to himself and Shia LaBeouf. Mixed between their characters’ two stories are confused messages about the value of the truth and rallying for your beliefs (provided it’s not too much of an inconvenience).
Former weather underground member Jim Grant (Redford) has been happily living under an assumed identity for the past thirty years. He practices law, raises his daughter*, and lives a good, clean life. When his old comrade Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is arrested for her participation in the murder of a bank guard thirty years ago, it leads hungry young reporter Ben Shepard (LaBeouf) to uncover who was also associated with the killing. Grant’s name comes up, and he’s forced to leave his daughter with his brother (Chris Cooper), and go on the “run” (figuratively, it’s more of a light jog) from the FBI to find Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), another former underground member who might be able to clear his name. Meanwhile, Shepard continues to dig deeper into what happened thirty years ago.
Shepard’s story is better than anything Redford’s done since Quiz Show. It’s sharp, clever, well-paced, and draws us into a compelling mystery. There’s not much danger in Shepard’s investigation, but LaBeouf plays his cocky reporter with great charm and an easy demeanor. If the film entirely belonged to Shepard, it would have the room to be a thrilling and captivating journalism yarn that would provide a nice callback to the tenacity of Redford’s Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men.
But Redford’s stunning vanity forces us to circle back to the dull movements of Jim Grant. The FBI wants to arrest Grant because it’s embarrassing to the bureau to have a thirty-year-old open case. However, the amount of effort they put into their pursuit shows why they’ve failed for the past three decades. The investigation hinges on call tracking and letting Shepard do all of the legwork. Meanwhile, Grant’s chase is simply a matter of tracking down an old associate, reminiscing, getting a lead on another old associate, driving on to the next reunion, and repeating this tiresome process unencumbered by any looming threat.
Grant’s journey becomes even more annoying when Redford makes his inevitable preaching about these damn kids today. Speaking with another old friend (Richard Jenkins), the two proudly remember how they used to protest like true activists, and kids today just send out an angry tweet and move on. I don’t necessarily disagree with the statement (although this movie seems to take place in a world where the Occupy movement never happened), but it’s painfully hypocritical coming from two guys who have tried to bury their past. It’s like the old saying: “If you’re not a rebel in your twenties you’re a coward. If you haven’t sold out by the time you’re thirty you’re a fool.” Grant and his pals show you can still be a coward and a fool well after you’re thirty.
The movie also has a dubious message on the value of the truth. The entire conflict stems from Shepard’s reporting causing trouble for Grant. While Shepard is definitely more concerned with his career than the value of the truth, he’s still a professional. Rather than having Grant own up to his past, Shepard is made out to be some kind of huckster who hasn’t done an honest day’s work in his life. This is in contrast to the guy who’s proud of his protesting days except when it might cause him to go to jail.
To Redford’s credit, Company You Keep isn’t the thinly veiled political preaching of his recent films Lions for Lambs and The Conspirator, and instead he puts the emphasis on creating a strong narrative when it comes to Shepard. Sadly, Redford wastes the majority of a stellar cast that also includes Brendan Gleeson, Nick Nolte, Anna Kendrick, Terrence Howard, Sam Elliott, and Brit Marling. The roles are thin for such great actors, and some parts are completely unnecessary. If Robert Redford could simply get over himself, he may have had a much stronger film, but yet again, he’s the worst thing about his movies.
*Side note: Would it have killed Redford to make the kid his granddaughter instead of his daughter? Perhaps her parents had died, and now he was her guardian instead of a single, 76-year-old father. At best, Robert Redford can pass for 65, which is still grandpa age. The cat is out of the bag: Robert Redford is old.