The Old Man & the Gun November 1, 2018
1 Hr., 33 Mins.
ear the end of The Old Man & the Gun (2018), the new film by the American writer-director David Lowery, a man recollects an exchange he recently had with Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford), a career criminal. Across from the man is a detective who’s been trying to track Forrest down for the entirety of the movie thus far. During his conversation with
the latter, the man recalls coming to a point during which he asked the lifelong crook, whose criminal career began in childhood, why he continues to make trouble. He is smart, cunning; he could make an honest living if he wanted to. “‘I’m not talking about making a living,’” the man remembers Forrest countering. “‘I’m talking about just living.’”
Forrest, who really did exist and who died in 2004, is something of a 20th-century equivalent to an antiquated Old West anti-hero. Since his teenage years, he has evinced himself both a masterful escape artist — he recently escaped from San Quentin by making a canoe using a tarp and other offbeat materials — and a virtuosic criminal. Though he inevitably will get caught, a new, recurring shenanigan can marinate for months, and Forrest will remain undetected. I suspect, however, that this immoral luminary has no problem getting handcuffed and locked away: part of the fun is making a getaway, and then reinventing his criminal persona.
In The Old Man & the Gun, Forrest is nearing the end of his rope. The year is 1981; he’s in his 70s. His pool-blue eyes still twinkle the same, and his comic-book-beautiful smile is still pearly and persuasive. His hair remains shaggy, glinty, corn-yellow. But his gait is wobblier now; his skin is leathery and beaten. It is clear that the feeling of invincibility that has for so long partially piloted him has begun evanescing.
A game of cat-and-mouse drives The Old Man & the Gun. As the film opens, we discover that Forrest, who descended on Texas after his most recent escape, has begun discreetly robbing banks in the area, with the assistance of two similarly weathered career convicts, Waller (Tom Waits) and Teddy (Danny Glover). The trio’s modus operandi is simple. Forrest calmly introduces himself to either a vulnerable teller or a blundering manager, quietly informs them that they’re being robbed, and then benignly waits until a chunky bag of cash is handed over. Waller and Teddy tootle about the premises, there for backup in case anything goes wrong. When victims are questioned later on, they relate that the man who robbed them was “a gentleman”: in most cases, he was smiling for most of the transaction. It was, in a way, an honor to be cheated by him.
The earlier mentioned detective, a family man named John (Casey Affleck), initially just abets his co-workers when the robberies begin. So it is a personal tie, then, that gets John invested. One morning, with his two kids in tow, he visits his bank, which also happens be one Forrest and his cronies are currently robbing. When the moon-faced manager locks the doors upon Forrest’s departure and informs the room that the bank has just been robbed, a lightbulb goes off.
John, who celebrated his 40th birthday with the excitement of a St. Bernard visiting the vet, now has something, professionally, that is, that gives him a consistent reason to wake up eager for the working day. Who is the man behind these thefts, and how is he pulling them off? Eventually, John puts two and two together and comes to realize that these jobs have been carried out by a handful of septuagenarians. This leads him to memorably tell the press, at one point, that he and his co-workers are calling them the “Over-the-Hill Gang.”
While waiting to get caught, Forrest begins romancing Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a girl-faced retiree who lives on a farm with a trio of cutely named horses. Jewel has no idea that the man wooing her is a criminal. Forrest tries telling her, shortly after he flukily meets her for the first time, that he’s a bank robber. From the get-go, though, she thinks he’s joshing, and that’s that. Forrest is smitten, but perhaps not smitten enough to abandon his life of crime behind to go straight and settle down.
The Old Man & the Gun, which liberally tweaks the source material to brace dramatic heft, was based on a profile published in The New Yorker in 2003. Lowery isn’t as interested in assiduously detailed biographizing as he is with recapturing what made Forrest such a fascinating figure. Here was this preternaturally perceptive man who was everlastingly thrilled by the art of the escape and the art of seeing a perfect crime through, and who managed, by most standards, to succeed as a professional criminal. Thrust into the movie, though, is a subtly there existential-crisis element. When you dedicate your life to lotus-eating, at what point must you stop? Do you stop?
Forrest’s slowing-down zest for life is precisely, and effectively, contrasted with John’s searching one. John is foundationally happy. He loves his children, and his relationship with his wife, a serene beauty named Maureen (Tika Sumpter), remains exciting and love-ridden all these years later. But there is a sense that a midlife crisis is brewing. His routine varies little, and he’s grown as comfortable as someone can be in his profession. Chasing after Forrest brings in a kind of brio so unseen that John’s daughter humorously says that she hopes her father never nabs his main man, as if sensing the emptiness that could follow. “If you caught him, you wouldn’t be able to chase him anymore,” she matter-of-factly remarks. Maybe living as Forrest does — dangerously — is more consistently reenergizing. But then there is the appealing purpose of John’s. There is an engaging push-pull.
Redford, who gives one of his greatest performances in the movie, has frequently said The Old Man & the Gun, which is his 48th film, will be his last. If this is true, it is a complementary swan song: the feature both captures Redford’s ever-courageous artistic spirit and the actor’s once-in-a-lifetime way of infusing a role with what we perceive to be at least a part of himself. How fitting it is that Lowery is the man behind the camera: his sensibilities evoke the wry-cum-naturalistic ones utilized by many of the filmmakers with whom Redford worked at his ‘70s peak.
The commitment to telling a caper-like, well-worn, and often jovial story is prioritized over character development, though. Lowery jettisons motivations and descriptive backstories for fanciful abstractions. He is more concerned with watching these characters interact, and with buoying up a 16mm-lensed, end-of-the-line sort of drama that brings to mind The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), only nicer. Because the brought-together ensemble is more than capable of enthralling us, and because Lowery is an exceptional storyteller regardless of how lived-in the players are, The Old Man & the Gun’s powers are rarely curtailed by its very-minimal shortcomings. A-