[This is a repost of my review from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. The Old Man & the Gun opens in limited release today.]
The Old Man & the Gun is a movie that doesn’t have time for angst. Things like self-doubt, anger, and anxiety are a young man’s game. By focusing on elderly characters, writer-director David Lowery is able to slow his picture way down, yet never lose any of the energy or confidence of characters who know what they want out of life. In some ways, The Old Man & the Gun feels like an extended epilogue, and that all the nerve-wracking tension is what came before, and now we’re seeing an easy retirement albeit one that involves lots of bank robberies. Thanks to Lowery and cinematographer Joe Anderson cleverly choosing to film on 16mm, and combined with a terrific performance from Robert Redford, The Old Man & the Gun allows us to settle in for a good yarn that’s more about aging and passion than it is about love and loss.
Forrest Tucker (Redford) and his two compatriots Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits) are the world’s most gentlemanly bank robbers. Set in 1981 and based on true events, we see that Forrest and his “Over the Hill Gang” don’t need strong-arm tactics to knock over a bank; a smile, a polite word, and a calm demeanor will get them pretty far. As Forrest and his pals continue to rob banks, he starts to fall for Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a widow who spends her days tending to her horses on her ranch. But determined detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck) isn’t as charmed by Forrest as everyone else, and is determined to bring the bank robber to justice.
There’s something to be said for movies that are relatively low stakes, peaceful, and quiet. It’s to Lowery’s great credit that The Old Man & the Gun feels relaxing and warm rather than soporific. It’s a movie where characters aren’t really going to change, and even the cops-and-robbers aspect of Hunt going after Forrest feels perfunctory. The Old Man & the Gun is all about letting you get comfortable because the characters are comfortable. It’s not that they’re indifferent or stuck as much as they’re at peace with where they’ve come to in their lives.
The decision to shoot the movie on 16mm makes The Old Man & the Gun look both like a period movie, evoking the 60s, 70s, and early 80s, and gives it a punch of personality to be drastically different than other films released today. The grainy texture makes the story feel lived-in, and does justice to the characters who aren’t pristine or perfect but rather have learned to live with their many imperfections. It’s a movie about the comfort that comes with age, and it feels like the film would best be viewed from a rocking chair on a porch. It’s just that kind of nice, safe feeling.
Redford has said that this will be his last film performance, and if he holds to that, then it’s an admirable swan song. While not as challenging as his largely silent performance in All Is Lost, Redford shines because of how this movie plays to that movie star charm the actor has never lost. It’s hard to see other actors of Redford’s generation playing this part because he still has that amiable, affable quality. That’s not to say that Redford is better or worse than his contemporaries as much as he has a unique look and approach to the character that makes him perfectly suited for a character who relishes what he does and has spent his whole life doing it. For Redford, it’s been acting, and for Forrest, it’s robbing banks and breaking out of jail.
To the great credit of Lowery’s script, the movie isn’t simply an empty aphorism of “Do what you love!” Through Hunt’s investigation, we see the wreckage Forrest left along the way. There’s an extended scene where Hunt interviews Forrest’s daughter, and you can see that while she’s managed to make a good life for herself, he is a bit of a selfish man. That doesn’t make him evil, but it does make him a bit callous, more willing to pursue his own happiness than the happiness of others. By acknowledging the cost of Forrest’s lifestyle, the choices carry more weight even if Forrest is comfortable with the choices he’s made.
Much like the hapless bank employees Forrest robs, I couldn’t help but be charmed by The Old Man & the Gun. Yet again, Lowery shows he’s a singular filmmaker who has astounding range (it’s kind of remarkable he’s made the Disney movie Pete’s Dragon, the melancholy indie A Ghost Story, and The Old Man & the Gun in the span of a couple years) but never loses sight of the pathos of his characters. The Old Man & the Gun may not be challenging movie, but it’s still an incredibly thoughtful one and a lovely grace note for its legendary lead actor.