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Non-Review Review: The Old Man and the Gun

There’s a charming gentleness to The Old Man and the Gun, an old-fashioned charisma that reflects its octogenarian leading man.

The Old Man and the Gun has been largely branded as the last feature film to star Robert Redford. Of course, show business retirements are notoriously fickle, as Clint Eastwood has repeatedly demonstrated and will likely continue to demonstrate with The Mule. It isn’t too hard to imagine Robert Redford returning to the screen (or behind the camera) in a couple of years, his roguish grin enough to forgive the broken promise that audiences probably never wanted him to keep anyway. However, it is still impossible to escape the sense of The Old Man and the Gun as a farewell piece, a tribute sculpted in the image of its lead.

Every good thief should know a solid fence.

The Old Man and the Gun is gentle, sweet and has charm to spare. As a performer, Redford is defined by a star quality that feels increasingly old-fashioned in an era where blockbuster cinema is driven by established intellectual property and awards-season fare seems to be shaped by recognisable directors. Redford was always an actors whose central appeal lay in how hard it was to dislike him. Redford had a roguish charm that offset a more fundamental decency, a movie star who seemed like he’d have stories to tell over a nice drink, but never at anybody else’s expense.

If The Old Man and the Gun is to be Redford’s cinematic swansong, there are certainly worse ways to go.

The Old Man and the Gun infamously blew its casting budget on Robert Redford, who insisted that he could play both title characters.

The Old Man and the Gun finds Redford reteaming with director David Lowry. Lowry is a fascinating director, the rare film-maker who can bounce between the genuine indie sensibilities of something as high-concept and potentially alienating as Ghost Story and something with a much broader and warmer appeal like Pete’s Dragon. Lowry is capable of hitting all of the expected emotional and narrative beats expected from a crowd-pleasing fairy tale, but he is also capable of telling stories that are a lot more esoteric and weird.

The Old Man and the Gun is much more in the tradition of Pete’s Dragon than Ghost Story. Narratively, it is a fairly straightforward story about stick-up man Forrest Tucker, one of the last of that iconic breed of American outlaws. Although the movie dates its action to the early eighties, it most obviously evokes the sixties. Even the bright yellow font employed by the data stamps suggests an older Hollywood aesthetic. If the American outlaw featured in The Old Man and the Gun doesn’t predate the violence and brutality of those featured in Bonnie and Clyde or Badlands, then he has at least bypassed them.

Ain’t no finer diners.

Tucker is an idealised sort of criminal, the man who attacks systems and corporations rather than the people working within the system. He doesn’t act out of any malice or any political motivation. In fact, the stacks of money abandoned under his floorboards seem to discount a financial motivation for his crimes. His one-time lawyer recalls a conversation with the robber. “There has to be an easier way of making a living,” the lawyer told his client. Tucker responded simply, “I’m not talking about making a living. I’m just talking about living.” There is a sense in which this is the only way that Tucker knows how to live.

The Old Man and the Gun frames Tucker’s banditry as something relatively harmless, as a hobby or even a calling. It may even be impossible to separate these robberies from Tucker; they are not what he does, they are who he is. The robberies are an extension of the man himself, rather than the expression of some deep-seated pathology, although it may be possible to frame them as such. Early in the film, he quietly robs a bank while a police man is waiting in line to open an account for his son. Later on, he helps to talk a terrified cashier through a robbery. “It’s my first day,” she panics. “You’re doing great,” he assures her.

Tucker is so polite that he’d only wear his hat in doors in an emergency.

The Old Man and the Gun returns time and again to the idea that Tucker is “polite” and “happy.” When police investigator passes around composite sketches of the stick-up artists, he has to qualify their accuracy to witnesses. “Yeah, I know,” he sighs. Tucker looked like this, “But happy.” Although The Old Man and the Gun makes a point to include John Hunt as a police officer foil to Tucker, Lowry cannily and cleverly evades the sort of high-stakes psychological intensity of other cat-and-mouse thrillers like Heat or even Den of Thieves.

The Old Man and the Gun avoids the familiar clichés of the cops and robbers narrative. It never suggests that Hunt and Tucker are counterparts or equivalent to one another. It also avoids the easy motivation of moral outrage. Watching The Old Man and the Gun, it frequently seems like Hunt is so actively chasing Tucker because he is fascinated by the old man. As a police officer, Hunt is surrounded by moral decay and unnecessary violence, as early sequences establish. In that sense, Tucker almost seems like a novelty to the detective. Tucker is not violent, Tucker is not aggressive, Tucker is not vindictive.

Tucker needs to screen his dates more carefully.

At one point, his lawyer explains the eponymous firearm that Tucker carries with him. “He told me that he’s never used it,” the lawyer explains. He hastens to add, “And I believe him.” Although there were reports of a shoot-out during one of his apprehensions, Tucker always argued that his car backfired. A small moment during the climax of the film makes it very clear where Lowry falls on this point. The movie itself is consciously non-violent. Even when violence does occur – such as a secondary character receiving a non-fatal gunshot wound – it happens off-screen and between takes.

It is debatable whether such outlaws ever actually existed, whether a man like the version of Forrest Tucker depicted in The Old Man and the Gun could ever actually exist. However, The Old Man and the Gun isn’t really about outlaws, so much as it is about a certain sort of mythic archetype. Tucker’s lawyer openly admits that his client could readily furnish dozens of tall tales on request, a concession that serves to cheekily cast doubt on the movie’s assertion that “this is, also, a true story.” Lowry knows exactly what he is doing.

Worth the Waits.

The Old Man and the Gun is not so much a nostalgic salute to actual American outlaws. After all, Lowry spends enough time in the movie acknowledging more gritty and earnest tales of outlaw brutality by casting Sissy Spacek, famous for her role in Badlands, or by positioning Hunt in such a way as to evoke modern outlaw movies like Heat. Instead, it is a fond farewell to a certain romantic ideal of the American outlaw. The Old Man and the Gun suggests that Tucker is the last embodiment of a certain kind of American myth, a cowboy outlaw who is so far removed from his own time that he has never even ridden a horse.

In this sense, the casting of Robert Redford works beautifully. Redford is one of the defining American film stars, an important and essential part of twentieth century American mythology. Certainly, his work in sixties and seventies Hollywood is enough of itself to imprint the actor upon the national psyche; there are countless actors who would kill to star in a single movie as iconic as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor and so forth. For a certain generation of film fan, Redford will embody an archetype of American masculinity.

A fun shoot.

However, Redford has seemed somewhat out of place in the twenty-first century media landscape. It is tempting to imagine Redford’s roles as a sailor lost at sea in All is Lost or as the ill-fated wandering adventurer in A Walk in the Woods as a metaphor for Redford’s place in the twenty-first century media landscape. Redford is the kind of movie star who genuinely doesn’t exist any more, give or take the seemingly immortal Tom Cruise. He doesn’t easily fit in a landscape of franchises and mumblecore. It is telling that when he did pop up in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he was a destabilising force.

As such, The Old Man and the Gun uses Redford as an embodiment of an ideal that has been lost, without making any bold moral judgments about what has replaced him. Although Lowry ensures that Forrest is a well-rounded character, the film is structured in such a way that Forrest disappears into Redford whenever the actor appears on screen. It is hard to look at that cheeky grin and those pensive-yet-playful eyes without seeing Redford, and Lowry leans into that. Then again, it makes sense that Lowry would understand how to use Redford, who appeared as a voice of an older wisdom in Pete’s Dragon.

Redford steals his own movie.

There’s a wonderful tenderness to The Old Man and the Gun, particularly in the scenes that Redford shares with his co-stars. There’s warmth and humour in his flirtations with Sissy Spacek, genuine comradery in those scenes that he shares with Danny Glover and Tom Waits as his fellow thieves, and even a curious affection in the interactions that he plays with Casey Affleck. Lowry seems to be playing with the iconic diner scene from Heat when has his cop and robbers cross paths in a greasy spoon. However, the scene largely consists of Tucker offering some tips on personal grooming to the detective on his tail.

To be fair, The Old Man and the Gun is more than just a nostalgic paean to a long-lost mode of American myth, although that is undoubtedly a large part of its appeal. Lowry sketches a surprising and engaging amount of detail around the edges of his story, in such a way that it never feels mean-spirited or vindictive, but also just enough to layer some complexity into its depiction of an old-fashioned masculinity. In particular, The Old Man and the Gun candidly and pointedly acknowledges the limits of its lead character’s charisma.

Working the Casey.

Although the film embraces the romantic fantasies of Tucker’s outlaw lifestyle, in particular the pleasantness with which he conducts his business, Lowry makes a point to suggest the emotional violence that Tucker has wrought. Early in his flirtations with a widow named Jewel, Tucker is asked whether he has any children. “I hope not,” he replies with that easy charm and that winning smile masking a certain carelessness. If The Old Man and the Gun allows Tucker his fantasy of being a pacifist outlaw, the film makes a point to call him on the collateral damage that fantasy has caused to the people around him.

The Old Man and the Gun is a charming, sweet, disarming film. Even if Redford’s retirement proves as temporary as any of Tucker’s brief incarcerations, it still stands as a fitting monument to an American screen icon.

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