“THE OLD MAN & THE GUN” — 3½ stars — Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Danny Glover, Sissy Spacek, Tika Sumpter; PG-13 (brief strong language); in general release
“The Old Man & the Gun” is an appropriate film for Robert Redford to deliver his final on-screen performance. There’s a kind of harmonic symmetry to David Lowery’s “mostly true” story of notorious bank robber Forrest Tucker that brings the work of its lead actor full circle.
Set in the early 1980s, “Old Man” follows the adventures of Tucker (played by Redford) as he robs his way through the central United States and into the heart of a widow named Jewel (Sissy Spacek). Tucker and Jewel meet in the middle of a getaway as the film opens, and their charming conversation in a Texas diner introduces us to a unique protagonist.
Tucker is a career criminal, the ringleader of a bank robbing trio dubbed the “Over the Hill Gang.” He’s the bad guy, and as the film goes on, we learn more and more about just how bad he is. But wherever Tucker goes, his victims can’t help but marvel at the charming older gentleman who is robbing them with a smile on his face.
After Tucker commits robberies in five states over two years, a Dallas detective named John Hunt (Casey Affleck) finally starts connecting the dots. Hunt is a quiet family man who has been questioning the meaning of his work ever since crossing 40, but he harbors a quiet determination to capture the mysterious smiling bank robber who continues to elude him — even when the FBI tries to step in and take over the chase.
As Hunt closes in, Tucker continues to pull off job after job with his crew, which is rounded out with Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits). He also pursues his relationship with Jewel, who doesn’t know about Tucker’s unseemly recreational habits, though she suspects they aren’t all on the straight and narrow.
Part of the reason Tucker is able to hide his activities is because, at least from what we’re seeing on screen, he never seems to spend any money. When you factor in his age, you start to wonder: Just why does Tucker do what he does?
These questions drive a character-driven plot that parallels the cat-and-mouse game between Hunt and Tucker, and Lowery does an excellent job of maintaining a degree of tension while giving his film a distinctly laid-back, low-key atmosphere.
Even without knowing this is Redford’s final performance, it’s easy to get lost in the ambiguity between the actor and his character. Tucker, a real-life bank robber, may be a villain, but played by Redford, he’s a classic antihero, and “Old Man” could very well be a character sketch for the actor as much as a story of the film’s subject.
Stepping into the shoes of an outlaw is a fitting big-screen farewell considering Redford’s big-screen career began as the Sundance Kid, but in a way, Tucker’s charming, twinkle-eyed criminal is more an echo of Butch Cassidy, as played by Redford’s old co-star Paul Newman. His chemistry with Spacek provides a similar appealing dynamic.
But tossing aside romantic allusions, “Old Man” is just a well-acted, well-crafted movie, the kind that lets you get lost in its details — like in a gorgeous shot where Redford stands in a doorway, his silhouette interplaying with the setting sun.
With a grainy look and a deliberately simple tone, “The Old Man & the Gun” looks like it could have been released in the early 1970s, right down to the old-fashioned titles. As send-offs go, we couldn’t have asked for better.
“The Old Man & the Gun” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language; running time: 93 minutes.