Retirement talk notwithstanding, Robert Redford’s relevance has been questionable for some time, and those who may have hoped that his final film would provide a suitable coda to such an illustrious career will find themselves disappointed with The Old Man and the Gun. That said, those hoping for a pretty piece of puff pastry that has little to recommend it beyond Redford’s charm will get exactly what they bargained for. Writer/director David Lowery has delivered the stylistic and thematic antithesis to his 2017 film, A Ghost Story, with this paean to Redford’s undeniable charisma, and if you’re not looking for anything much deeper than that, you’ll find The Old Man and The Gun a lightly likable — if ultimately inconsequential — film that checks just enough of the right boxes.
I called A Ghost Story a “minimalist exercise in pseudo-surrealism,” and The Old Man and the Gun could not be further removed from anything so experimental or transgressive. This is a film that will challenge no assumptions, inspire nothing resembling deep thought and contribute little if anything of lasting value to the contemporary zeitgeist. And yet it’s a fun little movie in its own way — it’s a film fully aware of its inherent frivolity, and it’s not trying to be anything more than a good time.
Redford stars as gentleman bank robber Forrest Tucker, and much is made of his good-natured smile in Lowery’s script. Based very loosely on David Gann’s 2003 article in The New Yorker about the real-life Tucker, Lowery’s narrative emphasizes the casual élan with which the septuagenarian thief carried out a series of audacious heists that captured the public imagination for about 15 minutes. It’s a compelling story, here stripped of any verisimilitude with reality or acknowledgment of the severity of the crimes recounted. Lowery is presenting the armed robber as seducer — though whether or not he’s trying to make a larger point, your guess is as good as mine.
But the catch is, this is precisely the type of role Redford was born to play. From his early-career appearance on The Twilight Zone as the angel of death (Nothing in the Dark, S3E16, 1962) to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Sting and on through films like Indecent Proposal, Redford has specialized in softening the hard edge of some less-than-reputable characters. Because he’s so damned likable, Redford’s portal of lovable rogues has long prompted empathy with people who probably don’t deserve it. This, it turns out, is Lowery’s master plan.
By exploiting Redford’s sundown-years celebrity, as well as that of co-stars Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover and Tom Waits, Lowery has made a feel-good movie for the soon-to-be nursing home set, a nostalgia vehicle that proves ageist even as it strains to enamor the aged. It works more than it doesn’t, provided you don’t think about it too much, and the occasional flash of stylistic brilliance from Lowery goes some way toward ameliorating the film’s capacity for smirking self-indulgence. It’s not quite the sendoff that I would have liked to see for Redford, but in many ways, it’s the most fitting swan song he could have played. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.
Now Playing at Carolina Cinemark, Fine Arts Theatre.