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Review: Robert Redford Aims to Charm in ‘The Old Man & the Gun’

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

Willie Sutton said he robbed banks because that’s where the money was. Forrest Tucker, whose serial bank jobs punctuate “The Old Man & the Gun,” declines to give a reason, but his motive seems to be something more mysterious — or maybe more matter-of-fact — than simple greed.

Forrest likes the money just fine, but stealing it feels like an artistic pursuit, a religious practice or a geezer’s eccentric hobby. He’s like the woman in the Townes Van Zandt lyric who sings “for the sake of the song” rather than because of any external considerations.

There are some good songs in David Lowery’s new film, which may also be Robert Redford’s last, and which has a certain musical quality of its own. Mr. Redford plays Forrest, a real person profiled by David Grann in a 2003 New Yorker article, like a figure out of an old ballad. Forrest doesn’t talk much, or display much emotion — his range of feeling runs from mild concern to wry amusement — but he has a touch of poetry to him, and an old-fashioned courtliness. Witnesses and victims, interviewed on the local news after he has emptied their cash drawers, recall Forrest’s good manners. “He was a gentleman,” one says, as if his theft were a compliment he had paid the bank and its employees.

The proper compliment to give “The Old Man & The Gun” is that it treats Mr. Redford with the respect he deserves. A charismatic minimalist from the start, he has lately — in the haunting “All is Lost” and the mild-mannered “Our Souls at Night” — offered a series of master classes in understatement. At a time when bluster, bragging and histrionic displays of self-pity are apparently the defining characteristics of American manhood, it’s nice to be reminded of the virtues of discretion and quiet. Forrest seems like a gent who would be pleasant to hang out with, easy to forgive and impossible not to admire, for how cool he is if nothing else.

Mr. Lowery doesn’t burden the character — or the audience — with too much story or psychology. We learn that Forrest got an early start in his life of crime, that he has broken out of prison many times, that he has a grown daughter who lives in California. (The robberies take place mainly in Texas and nearby states. The time is the 1980s). He has two equally creaky confederates, played by Tom Waits and Danny Glover, and strikes up a romance with Jewel (Sissy Spacek), who proves susceptible to his charms even as she expresses some gentle skepticism about who he pretends to be.

Meanwhile, Forrest is pursued by a detective with the absurdly allegorical (but absolutely true to life) name of John Hunt. Played by Casey Affleck, Hunt is at once Forrest’s opposite and his secret sharer: a hard worker and a family man (his wife is played by Tika Sumpter) as effortlessly honest as his nemesis is crooked. They are not exactly Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Mr. Lowery turns the moral and dramatic heat down to the faintest simmer, as if conducting a perverse genre experiment. How much intensity and suspense can you drain from a movie about cops and robbers without having the thing collapse into anecdote and whimsy?

“The Old Man & the Gun” kind of does just that, but it’s hard to mind too much. If you work a bit, you can persuade yourself of hidden depths and metaphysical sorrows. Mr. Affleck is so melancholy. Mr. Redford is so blithe. Surely the contrast in their temperaments means something. And so do the scuffed American landscapes, where the faintest ghosts of old-time outlaws and cowboys can be discerned amid the drab commercial architecture.

To return to the musical theme, the movie is like a brand-new song carefully engineered to seem timeless. Mr. Lowery is a connoisseur and a counterfeiter of Americana, whose recent features — including “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” “A Ghost Story” and the sweet 2016 remake of “Pete’s Dragon” — self-consciously pursue a dream of authenticity. They are often, at least to my eye, a little too fussed-over to be entirely convincing, and always more wishful than observant about the realities of human life. But they are also, like Forrest Tucker, gracious and skillful enough to make it feel like they’re doing you a kindness when they take your money.

The Old Man & the Gun
Rated PG-13. Victimless crimes. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes.


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