Robert Redford Bids Farewell to the Big Screen With Eloquent ‘The Old Man & the Gun’

The aged outlaw is sometimes even more mischievous and fun to watch than the young hothead. “The Old Man & the Gun” plays like an elegant, dreamlike western from another era. It stars Robert Redford in his final big screen performance, and it is a great one. The charm and rugged presence are on display, but tempered by experience, yet still feisty. Redford plays a real life bank robber who simply knows no other life, not because he isn’t capable of making an honest living, but because the thrill of crime is what makes him feel alive. For director David Lowery it is a welcome sign of versatility. His rich visual eye is here, but with a different timbre.

The movie is set in 1981. Redford plays Forrest Tucker, a 74 year-old bank robber who roams Texas and neighboring states with his two other crew members, Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits). Their method for a heist is very simple. They walk in and Forrest makes it clear to a clerk or banker what they’re there for, but with a friendly, sophisticated tone. Rarely is there ever violence, these are old timers after all. After a recent heist Forrest pulls over to help Jewel (Sissy Spacek), whose car has broken down in the rain. The two have coffee and develop a pleasant bond, but Forrest keeps his line of work secret, of course. Soon Forrest robs another bank, only this time present during the robbery is detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck). Hunt becomes obsessed with catching Forrest, dubbing him and his crew “The Over the Hill Gang.” The detective starts researching Forrest, finding the trail of a man who has been getting caught and breaking out for nearly his entire life.

This film doesn’t just feel like a tribute to Robert Redford, but like an elegy to all those 1970s tough guys played by Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen and Warren Oates. Redford plays the role with a subdued presence hiding a fire in the belly. He’s an aged man who never once felt like playing by the rules. There’s never a hint of malice when he robs a bank, but a kind of friendly defiance. Forrest simply walks up to a bank worker, opens his coat, revealing what we assume is a gun (but we’re never sure), and politely takes the money. In one of the film’s best scenes he warmly tells a nervous bank clerk that she’s doing great, after she reveals this is her first day on the job. During a montage we see much of Forrest’s past history, including escapes from a boy’s school, several prisons and eventually a legendary break from San Quintin by boat at the age of 70. There’s never a psychological analysis attempted of Forrest, he’s just always found himself being a natural troublemaker. Back in the 1970s the outlaw or rebel was breaking the rules to survive or defy convention. Redford’s Forrest is what we might imagine Warren Beatty’s Clyde from “Bonnie & Clyde” having turned into had he lived. Teddy and Waller are great supporting characters, because they give the film that feeling of hanging out with a band of old timer ruffians.

Redford himself has played every range from heroic journalist in “All the President’s Men” to suave gambler in “Havana” to lonely rich man paying for a night with Demi Moore in “Indecent Proposal.” Here he is playing the twilight of all those roles, the man who has lived a lot and although quieter, calmer, he refuses to surrender. Pairing him with Sissy Spacek was a brilliant stroke. Not only is she a fantastic actress, but she also brings the wisdom of long experience. Remember that her own career began in one of the great outlaw films of the 70s, Terrence Malick’s “Badlands.” Her moments with Redford have a maturity and sense of attraction that is so fine it shames the false cheesiness of something like “Life Itself.” Too experienced for the impatient stumbles of youth, their relationship blossoms with the closeness of a real friendship. The screenplay by Lowery is based on an article by David Grann on the real Forrest Tucker, but even if it had been fiction it would work as a beautiful character study. Casey Affleck’s detective also avoids becoming a standard movie cop. He goes after Forrest because it’s his job, but there’s an unavoidable sense of respect and even affection for the crook.

For Lowery this film proves again he is one of the great new directors. His previous work, such as “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “A Ghost Story,” featured a visually hypnotic style reminiscent of Terrence Malick. They were fantasies grounded in the real world, with an otherworldly vibe. With “The Old Man & the Gun” Lowery switches to a grainy, vintage look where the camera angles, zooms and cuts feel of the 70s and 80s, yet his lush eye for compositions is always present. This year has seen many films set in the 1980s, but this is the first movie that absolutely feels as if you’ve been taken back into the decade. He takes his time with scenes, allowing them to breathe, letting Forrest and Jewel share a glance or a moment out on a porch. A car chase involving Forrest doesn’t turn into a bloody action scene, instead he lets the camera stay on Redford as he smiles, enjoying the rush. The entire moment becomes a poetic brushstroke about who Forrest really is. Lowery avoids a tear-jerker ending, deciding to close the story with an almost bittersweet tone that would have made Sam Peckinpah (in his calmer moments) proud.

“The Old Man & the Gun” is a wonderful film and a fitting retirement piece for Redford. He has treaded wisely, avoiding the fates of colleagues who left the big screen out of frustration (Sean Connery with “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” Omar Sharif with “The 13th Warrior”). Instead he has chosen a film that showcases his strengths with a refined elegance and rugged liveliness. For an actor of Redford’s caliber to retire by playing an outlaw is fitting, because being an artist is almost the same fate. No matter where life takes you, that fire in the gut remains.

The Old Man & the Gun” opens Sept. 28 in New York and Los Angeles with more dates to follow nationwide.