Sometimes an actor is cast because their performance will be so immersive that they’ll vanish into the role, and other times they’re cast because there is no role, only a mark for a movie star persona to hit. But in rare instances, the movie star persona, or rather the legend around it, is the role. The performance is to embrace that mythology, if not necessarily deconstruct it. Robert Redford’s turn in The Old Man & the Gun is such a performance.
A deliberate echo of Redford’s early iconic work, Old Man acts as a bookend to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the George Roy Hill film that turned Redford into a movie star in 1969. In both pictures, Redford plays a sometimes-moustached bank robber who likes taking it easy in his life until the thrill of a gun at a teller’s window grabs him. And in both pictures, he courts self-destruction with a winning smile.
Yet David Lowery’s love letter to Redford’s iconography, from the Sundance Kid to Johnny Hooker, has little else to prove. Whereas Sundance sought to dissect and reinvent a well-worn genre via the then-ailing Western, Old Man & the Gun is content to mostly coast along on a gas take filled with nostalgia and a steering wheel set to 1970s-styled cruise control. Not that it isn’t pleasant to ride along on its highway.
Pulling from the stranger than fiction true story of Forrest Tucker—first made famous by a David Grann article in The New Yorker—the film meets Forrest near the end of his life in the early 1980s. A dapper gentleman in a smart suit and fedora, Tucker’s favorite pastime, and really the great love of his life, is robbing banks. We learn as much during the film’s opening hold-up, which is eventually followed by a series of similar vignettes wherein Forrest showcases his masterful small talk skills with one bank teller or manager at a time. They’re so taken with his gentility that they don’t even mind too much when he flashes a revolver—just so long as those pearly whites keep flashing too. Manners can get you far in life, folks.
That also goes for Tucker’s personal downtime between robberies, as he starts a sweet, late-in-life romance with Jewel (Sissy Spacek). This widowed rancher, who now devotes more of her day to beloved horses than her off-screen adult children, is flattered by the pleasant gent with a hearing aid and jokes about knocking over savings and loans. But she may be the only one. This especially holds true for John Hunt (Casey Affleck), a police detective who is so shaken that an old-timer robbed the backroom of a bank while he was in the front’s line with his son that he makes it his personal crusade to take down what he dubs in the press as the “Over the Hill Gang.” But is it really a cat and mouse game if the jovial mouse yearns for the chase and even attempts to mentor the cat?
Right from the jump, The Old Man & the Gun is clearly Lowery’s most accessible film this side of his brief flirtation with Disney. While A Ghost Story or Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (also both featuring Affleck) sought to challenge their audiences with unconventional glances at ostensible genre fare, this picture wants to put you as at ease as, well, Forrest Tucker in a snappy three-piece suit and revolver holster. With a leisurely affectation resembling the many Texan sunsets of its setting, Lowery’s picture is more concerned with leaning into Redford’s performance and getting out of the way of all other concerns.
It is in this sense that he harkens back to the decade of Redford’s arguably most substantial work, the 1970s. While the movie is set in the following decade, it’s still at the beginning of the Reagan Years, and the hair is shaggy, the men’s fashion outrageous, and the film grain is thick given that The Old Man & the Gun was shot on 16mm. The cinematography by Joe Anderson does a first-rate job of catching the reflection of ‘70s cinema’s celluloid warmth in bright naturalistic lighting, even when the subjects were less than glowing. The movie even encapsulates this in a visual that is just one-step away from on-the-nose, for Tucker lives right next to a cemetery that takes on a special dusky glow as the sun sinks below the hill from which many a tombstone watches him. And it is by this same fashion that the movie avoids being a complete rose-tinted trip down memory lane if only because it is about an old man facing mortality the only way he knows how: with indifference and a smirk.
It is so much about Tucker’s passion that everyone else’s drive passes right by. Spacek has some lovely scenes with Redford, but her romance always plays second fiddle to the greater concept of the piece, while the home life and ambitions of Affleck’s Hunt appear almost perfunctory, which is a shame considering he is introduced as man raising a biracial family in 1981 Texas with his wife Maureen (Tika Sumpter). There isn’t even enough room to fully explore Tucker’s accomplices in crime. In spite of having major acting prowess from Danny Glover and Tom Waits present, the other members of the Over the Hill Gang amount to little more than glorified cameos. This is Redford’s show.
Nevertheless, he sure knows how to put it on ever so well. Among his many glimpsed thefts, a highlight includes one teller who begins crying because it is her first day on the job, and here is this old-timer demanding she empty her cash register in his bag. Rather than threaten or dismiss her, Redford’s Tucker tries to comfort her like a grandfather dropping some heavy advice about growing up.
Similarly, Affleck gets one truly great scene in which he accidentally winds up in the same diner as Tucker and Jewel. The younger actor’s Hunt has already been on TV, saying he’s getting close to putting the cuffs on Redford. Still, Tucker follows Hunt into the bathroom to give him some pointers. With all the sympathy of a vice principal, Redford is visibly mentoring Affleck, both in-character and out, about the best way to play cops and robbers. The audacity of it is so incredulous that the only way audiences and the detective can believe this is happening is due to the myth of the man who would be Sundance. It is so all-encompassing that it becomes blinding when contained in that tiny restroom.
By the end of the picture, we even get Redford on a horse again, but such an on-the-nose touch wasn’t needed. Watching him in the metaphorical saddle one last time was proof enough he still had it, and we’re all too happy to witness him ride off into the sunset, even if that means a few more bankers’ first days end with one hell of a story.