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Film Review: The Old Man and the Gun

12 December 18 words: Gemma Finch

We checked out the final film in the legendary career of Robert Redford...

Director: David Lowery

Starring: Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, Casey Affleck

Running time: 93 mins

The Old Man and the Gun is a meandering swansong for Robert Redford, whose acting career has spanned nearly six decades, and whose legacy will far exceed that duration. A simple title for a film that is arguably simple, too, The Old Man and the Gun is free from the blockbuster’s burden - here you’ll find no grandiose action set pieces, perhaps justifiably so for an actor in his eighth decade, who has been hailed as the godfather of Indie film. However, as an actor whose past on screen alter egos have done it all, including all that action dazzle, Redford himself has nothing to prove. This is a film that, if given to another leading man without Redford’s illustrious film career, might not have worked, and would be devoid of the same poignancy and impact.  

The Old Man and the Gun is possibly Redford’s last film, as the actor announced his retirement earlier this year, then rescinded it somewhat when the universal reaction was one of dismay. Set in 1981, Redford plays Forrest Tucker, a real-life career criminal bank robber with no immediate plans to give up his work, unlike Redford. Similar to the actor though, Tucker has made himself seemingly untouchable, by forging a successful career by utilising his gentlemanly charm. He executes his robberies with a reasonable demeanour that is amusing to behold. Committing the crimes alongside two ageing sidekicks, their comradeship encapsulates the film’s preoccupation with the inessential details. A particular scene where Tom Waits recounts a tale about his view on Christmas is amusing but doesn’t move the story forward.

Tucker is pursued by detective and family man John Hunt (Casey Affleck). Initially difficult to warm to due to his casual, and, at times, inaudible and unnatural delivery, the film divides its time between the two men, as Hunt leisurely tries to bring Tucker and his gang to justice, learning again to enjoy his job after he has just turned forty. Hunt’s casual demeanour is soon understandable and suitable when you consider his attitude toward Forrest Tucker - as Hunt’s daughter points out, once he catches Tucker he won’t have the fun of catching him anymore, the fun he shares with his two children. The quirkiness of his performance eventually paints him as a cop who doesn’t lose sight of what matters - in his case, family - while pursuing Tucker. He is not a typical steely cop with tunnel vision morality. As his demeanour begins to mirror his character, he becomes likeable.

If this is your first time watching a film starring Redford, I expect the film won’t carry the same weight

Sissy Spacek is also an asset to the film, an actress with an impressive back catalogue herself. Redford’s scenes are mainly conversations with her character, Jewel. Sweet, wholesome and homely, she represents a path to an alternative life for Tucker. The two of them meet when Jewel’s truck breaks down, and she is quickly taken in by his quick witted charm, unaware of his criminal exploits. The pair showcase perfectly observed and naturalistic acting - Spacek and Redford simply conversing about even the most mundane of things is the highlight of the film. A memorable moment is during their first conversation at a diner, when Forrest mentions that riding a horse is something he would like to try in his life. Jewel quips in response “well, you better hurry up!” to which he simply responds with “why?”

From a narrative point of view, the film is sparse - the finer details of the robberies perpetrated by Tucker, as well as his motivations or past exploits are not shown or alluded to in any great detail, which is why I call the film meandering. There is a possibility that this was a deliberate creative decision, the film maker’s believing these details were unnecessary. To atone for these omissions, they try to rely on the audience’s knowledge of Redford’s past characters, often symbols of roguish charm, to provide enough padding to his character in this film. With that same twinkle in his eye, to them we are an audience that has been convinced by his charms long ago. Accompanied with a breezy score of jazz and memorable seventies songs, and shot on grainy 16mm film with the colours muted, the film evokes the film-making of an era where Redford was in his prime.

If this is your first time watching a film starring Redford, I expect the film won’t carry the same weight, but would still have some merit. An actor of Redford’s calibre, advanced years aside, should have a final film that doesn’t just ride on the coat tails of his star power and nostalgic currency, but a film that works to create a richer narrative that tries, even if ultimately in vain, to match his presence, and not assume his best work is behind him. A scene in which Forrest’s past exploits are touched upon uses footage from Redford’s past films, a further affirmation that The Old Man and the Gun is a nostalgia trip. I think to an extent this film relies on what Redford brings to the table to fill in the gaps left by an insubstantial narrative, but simultaneously the film has enough charming detail of its own making to cement it as a success.

Homely and bittersweet, this nostalgia trip doesn’t go anywhere fast - a restful tale for a man who has certainly earned his retirement.

Did you know? The opening credits are written in the same font as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The Old Man and the Gun is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 20 December

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