When Robert Redford was younger, the matinee-idol handsome actor would make it a point to give the camera his “good side,” and audiences would melt. He’s older now and makes no attempt to hide it, but then, he doesn’t need to. People don’t forget a performer like Redford, whose movie-star charisma idles low and sexy like a Harley Davidson motor even when he’s not doing anything, and that means a movie like David Lowery’s “The Old Man & the Gun” — a dapper, low-key riff on the bank-robber genre — can play things soft, counting on Redford’s charm to fuel the show.
In what the actor has indicated is likely to be his final film role, Redford plays Forrest Tucker, a certified rascal who, in 1981 at the spry age of 76, was busted for a series of small-time heists. More than 80 stick-ups, all told (by David Grann, whose story for The New Yorker inspired the movie). Tucker was caught plenty of times over the years, but somehow always found a way to escape. Along with pension-age accomplices Teddy (Danny Glover, always a delight, and an actor who never gets too old for this shit) and Waller (Tom Waits, whose “and that’s why I hate Christmas” story is a standout in the film), Tucker would saunter into a bank, politely ask for the manager, show him a pistol, and walk out with a satchel full of whatever cash was in the tellers’ drawers.
Tucker and company came to be known as the Over-the-Hill Gang, and the way the movie tells it, being robbed by them was kind of a pleasure. Maybe it was. It’s certainly a pleasure to watch — almost like a seduction, or that terrific opening scene in Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight,” where George Clooney, pretending to have a gun but in fact armed with nothing more than the twinkle in his eye and the hint of a smile, sweet-talks a nervous bank clerk (female, of course) into handing over the money. That’s pretty much how Redford does it here, although when it comes to twinkles and smiles, he can run circles around even a pro like Clooney. His performance reminds what movie stars once were capable of, delivered with natural ease and nary a trace of vanity (either he no longer has a “good side” or every angle of his now-weathered mug looks great).
For writer-director Lowery, “Old Man” is an ode to an icon — and also to a friend (his second feature, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” broke out at Sundance, the Redford-run festival that has served to make ’70s-style character-driven dramas like this still possible, and the actor played a role in his first Hollywood picture, a Disney remake of “Pete’s Dragon”). But instead of going big and giving Redford some bombastic swan song, he crafts a gracious exit that simultaneously feels like an encore of sorts. Tucker has the air of someone we’ve seen before — and to an extent we have: Had the Sundance Kid survived the super-posse, he might have gone on to be this kind of bank robber. At one point late in the film, during a montage of all Tucker’s escapes, Lowery features a clip from “The Chase,” and there he is, the late-’60s golden boy, now in his very, very late 60s (technically, 82).
There are a lot of robberies in the movie, nearly all of them the same — although one stands out, as long-haired police officer John Hunt (Casey Affleck, whose soft-spoken, soulful quality is better used here than it was in Lowery’s “Saints” or “A Ghost Story”) waits in line while Tucker and his friends discreetly do their thing. Humiliated by the experience, Hunt will make it his mission to apprehend the gang, and yet, the closer he comes, the more his appreciation for his quarry.
One could scratch around for a metaphor for how the succession of robberies resembles an actor’s career, or the list of lovers some Don Juan leaves behind, but “Old Man” doesn’t seem to be saying that. It assumes that its audience — Redford’s fans or the crowd that might have turned out to see a movie like “The Bridges of Madison County” back in the day — has seen its share of heist flicks, and it doesn’t need to pump them up for artificial excitement. There’s satisfaction in Lowery’s more casual approach, which shifts the focus to Tucker’s private life.
He’s speeding down the interstate toward Dallas mid-getaway when he spots a pretty lady (Sissy Spacek) standing beside her broke-down pickup on the side of the road. And so Tucker stops — while the squad cars go blazing by — to lend a hand. He invites her for coffee, all gentleman-like, and they slowly get to know each other. She asks what he does. He lies, says he’s in sales, and then thinks better of it, writing the real answer on a scrap of paper. Lowery and editor Lisa Zeno Churgin construct this scene in a surprising way, choosing unexpected angles, and skipping back and forth as the chemistry builds (another nod to “Out of Sight,” perhaps, or else the sexy nonlinear love scene in “Three Days of the Condor”).
Both Spacek and Redford are actors who do their best work when it doesn’t look like work at all, playing versions of what we believe to be themselves. She has a few really great scenes, including one where she gets to play his accomplice, experiencing the thrill of what he does for a moment — but only for a moment. Later, Lowery gifts her with a scene in which we know she knows what will come, allowing us to watch as she fills a tea kettle, staring off into the distance and thinking; then she puts it on the stove to boil and thinks some more. This moment (similar to Rooney Mara’s famous four-minute pie-eating in “A Ghost Story”) works because we can imagine what’s on her mind, and it’s even better than the one where she and Redford’s character put those ideas into words while sitting together on the porch.
These days, audiences expect too much from movies. Like tourists pulling into Vegas for the weekend, they want to hit up one of the glitzy new casinos and catcch a spectacular arena concert by the likes of Elton John or Celine Dion. As its grainy 16mm film stock suggests, “The Old Man & the Gun” isn’t for those people; it’s for the sort who are drawn to one of the older casinos, slightly off the Strip, where the lights are low and some guy plays soft jazz piano in the lounge. Daniel Hart’s score sounds like it belongs in such a place, setting the tempo for a movie that dares to get existential: What is this guy doing with his life? When will he quit? Can he?
When you find something you’re good at, you stick with it. For Robert Redford, that’s acting. For Forrest Tucker, it’s robbing banks. No one really wants to see guys like this retire, but if they must, it might as well be in a film as reflective as this one. What kind of legacy does Tucker leave behind? (A haunting scene with Elisabeth Moss as the daughter he probably doesn’t even realize he had will make your heart ache.) On the other hand, a movie like this is a reminder of everything Redford has given us over the years.