Based on a true story, Forrest Tucker escapes from San Quentin and carries out a string of heists that confound the authorities giving chase but enchant the public. Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek star.
If Robert Redford sticks to his pledge that he is now retired from acting, he is going out on a very good note with The Old Man & the Gun. This warm and gritty tale of compulsive real-life bank robber Forrest Tucker, who escaped from prison 16 times over the course of a long career that only ended when he was in his late 70s, is first and foremost a story about a man who loved his work. This sentiment could certainly be applied to Redford as well, and writer-director David Lowery makes a point of filming it in a 1970s style that vividly recalls the actor’s heyday playing outlaws and other rascally characters. Longtime fans of the actor will savor this enjoyable character piece, so Fox Searchlight’s main challenge will be to entice some younger viewers to come appreciate old-timers’ still-vital talents.
Lowery’s adaptation of David Grann’s New Yorker article about Tucker’s unique career concentrates on the criminal’s late period in 1981, which was merely a continuation of what he had been doing since he was a teenager. He still robbed banks, by this time with a couple of fellow senior citizens played here by Danny Glover and Tom Waits in a self-styled “Over-the-Hill Gang,” never carried a loaded gun, was polite and even personable in his robbery techniques (“He was such a gentleman,” one bank manager tells the police afterwards) and clearly enjoyed his work, arguably too much so.
If this sounds a bit like Hollywood glamorization of a career criminal, so be it, especially when the old man is played by Redford, whose full head of hair, alert mental antenna and nimbleness would put to shame many men decades his junior. His buddies in crime certainly give off the air of wanting to call it a day.
But the seductive craftiness with which Tucker approaches and then charms farm widow Jewel (Sissy Spacek) over a diner meal makes you warm to this old dog who is still convincingly in the game, and it’s okay to side with him because he’s so considerate of the bank employees he inconveniences when divesting them of their holdings. “I’m just making a living,” he insists.
Law enforcement, of course, is not interested in the good character of this habitual criminal, and one Texas lawman, John Hunt (Casey Affleck, returning to work with Lowery again after A Ghost Story), takes a particular interest in stopping the old man in his tracks. But Tucker effectively vanishes from sight for a period, partly through mild disguise but mostly, at this point, in the company of Jewel, who is beguiled by the man from the start and delightfully startled to be pulled into a late-age romance, the full nature of which is downplayed in the film.
Nonetheless, the relationship between the two attractive seniors fills the film out with a distinctive allure; their surprise and delight in what they’ve found with each other is palpable, and so lively is the rapport between Redford and Spacek that it makes one regret they’d never worked together before.
All the same, Tucker can’t be pinned down for long, and he and his cohorts continue their spree from Texas to the East. By now, the robber has grabbed the national spotlight, with one broadcaster challenging his pursuer Hunt by saying, “Here’s hoping time doesn’t catch up with them before you do.”
The film serves up a nifty compendium of its hero’s prior escapes, including one amazing one from San Quentin, but it’s not all fun and games, as he’s finally apprehended and sent to prison once again. While there, Tucker sends Jewel a letter describing his 16 escapes and wittily leaves number 17 blank, setting the stage for the final act.
The film makes plenty of mileage from trading on the charm of a good bad boy, and Redford’s long experience in playing such roles serves him beautifully here; he knows by now he doesn’t have to push his attractiveness to be ingratiating. His work here is natural, subtle, ingratiating and doesn’t miss a trick. In a montage indicating Tucker’s criminal career, there’s a quick clip of Redford in his 1960s physical glory playing an escaped convict in The Chase, which is just enough to sharply remind viewers of the man’s earlier self.
Stylistically, Lowery was shrewd to realize that making the film look gritty and rather rough was critical to preventing the feeling that it was glamorizing Redford and the character. He and cinematographer Joe Anderson therefore shot on film in Super 16 and roughed up the look a bit. What emerges is a movie that physically resembles something like The Friends of Eddie Coyle from 1973, a perfect fit for a story like this.
The score by Daniel Hart and a vast selection of well-chosen musical excerpts add greatly to the persuasive mood.
Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter, 31st August 2018.
The premise of “The Old Man & the Gun” is telegraphed early on, and never falters: As obsessive real-life bank robber Forrest Tucker, Robert Redford plays a man who can’t stop doing the one thing he does best. In that regard, it’s the ideal project to reflect on the iconic actor’s career, which stretches back decades and seems as though it might never end. Redford may claim that “The Old Man and the Gun” is his final role, but like the smirking thief he plays here, there’s a lingering sense that even he doesn’t buy it.
While Redford’s nearly wordless performance in “All is Lost” provided an opportunity to contemplate the expressive contours of the actor’s face, writer-director David Lowery takes that hook into overdrive, transforming the potential for a cheeky nostalgia trip into a bonafide crowdpleaser on its own terms. Utilizing a grainy 16mm aesthetic and a period-appropriate soundtrack, Lowery time-travels to a long-dormant aesthetic so well that the movie may as well be a relic of the era it salutes. The filmmaker has been channeling late-’70s cinema ever since his expressionistic crime saga “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” but “The Old Man & the Gun” eschews pastiche for a sweet, affable character study that resurrects Redford’s original star power with a wet kiss. The entire picture amounts to a low-key cinematic resurrection.
Set in 1981, “The Old Man & the Gun” culls from journalist David Grann’s 2003 New Yorker article about Tucker’s decade-spanning robberies and jail breaks, but it roots the story in a specific turning point. Now in his seventies, Tucker has returned to the game for the umpteenth time, storming one bank after another and coaxing tellers to hand over their cash in a genial tone that baffles his victims. When Texas detective John Hunt (a deadpan Casey Affleck) begins the process of interviewing witnesses, they all speak to Tucker’s persistent happiness. In not-so-subtle terms, the movie poses a question about Redford’s ongoing cultural appeal, and uses the mystery of Tucker’s outlaw career to mine for answers.
But “The Old Man & the Gun” goes beyond empty celebrity worship to give Redford one of his best animating devices — a romance. This comes in the form of another familiar face from the ’70s: Sissy Spacek is a lonely widow named Jewel, whom Tucker picks up on his way from fleeing a robbery. Playfully acknowledging his profession — to the point where she’s not sure what to believe — Tucker takes Jewel to a diner and engages in the sort of seductive banter he hasn’t shown in decades. Their ensuing relationship, intercut with Hunt’s efforts to collect more details about Tucker’s past, develops into a bittersweet conundrum by implication: They’re an ideal match, but anyone who has a passing familiarity with this sort of movie knows that this sort of impractical union never lasts.
Lowery, however, shows enough to savvy to recognize that audiences will catch on to this game, and his screenplay works overtime to dodge expectations. The most violent heists unfold offscreen, and many of the most pertinent details arrive in explanatory text or time-jumps that assume we can fill in the blanks. This is the rare heist movie where the heists matter less than the man who can’t stop pulling them off. When Danny Glover and Tom Waits surface in fleeting scenes as Tucker’s accomplices, they require no complex backstories; they’re essentially pop-culture props with familiar faces that look like they belong in this story, and they vanish when it no longer calls for them.
Ultimately, “The Old Man & the Gun” settles into a study of two men who can’t shake the desire to complete their work. Tucker’s persistent crimes meet their match in Hunt’s desire to stop them, but when the pair meet in the bathroom of a greasy-spoon diner, it becomes clear that they’re feeding off a mutual desire to stay in the game.
Lowery treasures surfaces as much as story, and regards his main actor as a narrative object more substantial than any dialogue about the character’s past. Aided by cinematographer Joe Anderson’s sharp camerawork, the director often frames Redford in extreme closeup, examining each crease of his face as if it tells another story. His screenplay is loaded with attempts by the suave protagonist to dole out dime-store wisdoms. “Looking sharp,” he says, “will take you a long way.” That may be the closest the actor comes to an autobiographical statement.
Spacek doesn’t land nearly as much screen time as Redford, but her melancholic gaze epitomizes the bittersweet tone, and she provides an endearing match to Tucker’s relentless swagger. When he attempts to steal some jewelry for her in the middle of a shopping mall, she casually guides him back to the store, eschewing anger to exert power over the situation with a tenderness that imbues the movie with a distinctive emotional core. Redford fans will catch elements of “The Sting” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in the way Lowery reveals information in piecemeal, rarely venturing into overstatement. Daniel Hart’s jazzy, upbeat score keeps each scene flowing into the next, and Lowery dodges many of the expected big moments.
At times, the story suffers from a knee-jerk shyness, as if the filmmaker were hesitant to take the movie into more ambitious terrain, and a few scenes do stumble on obvious homage. (One montage of the character’s jailbreaks goes so far as to include footage from Redford’s 1966 crime drama “The Chase.”) But as the period-appropriate tunes keep playing (the soundtrack includes everything The Kinks to Simon & Garfunkle, who complement the movie’s one big showdown), “The Old Man & the Gun” generally feels like the best kind of tribute, one that understands the material so well that it inhabits its very essence.
Ultimately, the movie is a giant, lovable metaphor: Tucker’s criminal preoccupations are such a natural part of his life he seems as if he could keep at it forever, no matter the impracticalities, and he becomes an ideal avatar for Redford’s own achievements. Whether or not Redford has actually delivered his final performance, the movie makes it clear that the actor’s past credits ensure he’s around for good.
Eric Kohn, IndieWire, 31st August 2018.