TELLURIDE – If “The Old Man & The Gun” really is Robert Redford’s swan song than the iconic actor could not have asked for a better way to end a venerable acting career that has spanned almost 60 years. The David Lowery-directed drama debuted at the 2018 Telluride Film Festival Friday afternoon and will have many wondering if Redford should reconsider his recent retirement announcement. He’s already hedged his secession from acting with a “never say never” and let’s hope he really hasn’t closed to the door to stepping in front of the camera again.
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Somewhat based on a true story, the ‘Old Man’ in question is Forrest Tucker (Redford), a hustler who spent his entire life robbing financial institutions and escaping prison, somehow charming almost every bank manager and teller who came his way. Lowery’s script picks up Tucker’s story in 1981 in Dallas–Fort Worth, Texas. After escaping from San Quentin Prison a few years earlier (he was something of an escape artist), Tucker has partnered up with Waller (Tom Waits, wonderfully hilarious) and Teddy Green (Danny Glover, in wingman mode) for a string of robberies across the Southwest. In the midst of one of those heists, Tucker meets Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a retired widow with a broken down truck which turns out to be the perfect distraction for our antihero. Seemingly a gentleman, Tucker gives Jewel a ride and after a flirtatious conversation at a local diner, they click.
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Tucker tells Jewel his profession almost immediately, but she finds it ridiculous and chooses to believe he’s in sales, instead. While Lowery wonderfully constructs the robberies and getaways that pepper the film, it’s these moments where Tucker and Jewel get to know each other that engross the viewer. These are two of the finest actors of their generation and they instantly create a chemistry that makes the improbable seem probable.
During one of these countless heists, however, Tucker and his cohorts end up robbing a bank where Detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck, solid) is waiting in the teller line with his young son. As with all of Tucker’s robberies (in this movie at least), no one gets hurt, but Hunt jumps on the case and starts tracking down these mysterious old fogies. He even goes on the local TV news where he dubs the robbers The Over The Hill Gang. This delights Tucker who responds by leaving him a whimsical note at their next target (written on a $100 bill, no less). As the film progresses, and much to his dismay, the FBI takes the case away from Hunt. Tucker doesn’t forget him, however, unaware their cat and mouse game hasn’t come to an end.
In any based-on-a-true story like this, it’s easy to gloss over the negative. However, while Lowery doesn’t go into intricate detail about Tucker’s life (only one of his three ex-wives is mentioned), he’s still accurately portrayed as a flawed man. Tucker abandoned his children. And even if he never meant to physically hurt anyone, the outlaw constantly put his friends in harm’s way and obviously experienced addictive thrills from robbing banks. And Lowery makes sure we realize that all he’s done in the long run is end up hurting the people who care for him the most.
Tucker’s story is contrasted with Hunt’s own conflict which is ultimately the weakest element of the movie because it simply feels superfluous. Having just turned 40, Hunt has been beaten down by years of working on one depressing case after another. The mystery of The Over the Hill Gang recharges him – much to the delight of his wife Maureen (Tika Sumpter, doing the best she can with an underwritten part) – but dramatically it’s much less interesting than Tucker’s storyline let alone Jewel’s.
The various marvels of the movie aren’t just the sparks between Redford and Spacek or Waits’ dry humor but often, Lowery’s inspired direction. Working with director of photography Joe Anderson, Lowery shoots the film in a style right out of the late ‘70s. Their collaboration is often gorgeous and meshes perfectly with David Hart’s fantastic score.
The Dallas-based director also has a keen eye for intricate details. In fact, so many tiny specifics give the picture a subtle depth that’s completely unexpected. It’s the black girl and white boy painting a wall while Tucker is switching getaway cars; the slight sneer of Hunt’s colleague because he’s in a mixed-race marriage; Hunt’s African-American partner randomly playing with a cop puppet as he tries to grab his attention, or Hunt’s kids playing with his police radio in the car. Lowery provides an atmosphere few filmmakers would even attempt with a film like this.
Still, the unexpected heart of ‘Old Man’ comes from its leading man. Still, 82 years young, Redford finds a way to make you care for Tucker. A character, as we’ve noted, you shouldn’t have much sympathy for. But somehow you still want him to ride off to the sunset. You want it all to work out. You want him to have fun robbing those banks forever. Just to see that trademark Redford smile one more time. [B+]
Check out all our coverage from the 2018 Telluride Film Festival here.