Wednesday, 23 January 2019

The Old Man and the Gun

"I'm not talking about making a living, I'm just talking about living."

David Lowery’s body of work is one of the most intriguing from any director of recent memory. Just for the sheer variety of that output alone. His 2013 debut from the grounded romance or ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ to the emotional maturity of ‘Pete’s Dragon’ as well as the lyrical immersion of ‘A Ghost Story’, those three films alone are wildly different in conceit and execution. His latest film is different yet again. A film that is much like its protagonist, suave and deceptively smooth.

At the age of 61, career criminal Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) is wanted by the law. Having escaped from prison on numerous occasions, Tucker is currently conducting a string of audacious bank robberies across the country. Closely connected to Tucker’s crime spree is detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck) pursuing him, and Jewel (Sissy Spacek) who is fascinated and infatuated with Tucker in spite of his profession.

Despite its directors impressive track record, ‘The Old Man and the Gun’ is not being thought of as the fourth David Lowery film as much as it is labelled the last Robert Redford film. Having announced his intent to retire from acting, this is likely to be the 82 year old’s final on screen role. Part of me has to wonder if Lowery was aware of this at some point in the film’s production as it possesses such a wistful and bittersweet tone. In leans into Redford’s own legendary status and seems to serve as a swansong for his prolific career.

I could be projecting some of this but there truly does seem to be an added sense of weight to ‘The Old Man and the Gun’ when viewed in the context of it being Redford bowing out. First and foremost it is a role that seems tailor made for him, with Tucker’s charm being an essential element to his crimes. Even the victims of his robberies describe him as polite and gentlemanlike, and as an audience you can’t help but agree with them. Despite the criminality of what he is doing, it’s almost impossible not to be endeared by Redford’s bright blue eyes, smooth smile and charismatic tone of voice.

In many ways ‘The Old Man and the Gun’ is an amalgamation of Redford’s finest qualities as an actor. The role requires him to be suave and roguish, but also humorous and deeply sincere. Too far in any direction and Tucker would seem less empathetic, which would in turn lessen the entire film, but something about Redford’s presence bestows that perfect balance onto the entire movie. While the movies does not overtly condemn or condone Tucker, it definitely sympathises with him.

As well as not placing any moral judgement on the story, the film’s tone is also decidedly more laid back and easy going. There’s no forced urgency to the narrative even though it concerns a career criminal, which makes it unique among this genre. There are a few chase sequences but I would describe them as being almost lyrical in tone. There’s a strange beauty to seeing Tucker so completely in defiance of the world around him, accompanied by a tinge of sadness that he seems incapable of knowing enough is enough.

Lowery seems much more intrigued by the nuance in the human interactions within his story. If anything the film is less about Tucker and more about the lives he leaves an impact on. Whether they love him or loathe him, almost every character in the film eventually becomes fascinated and mystified by him. Characters like Jewel know him personally, as she struggles to reconcile the way she loves him as a person with her concerns surrounding what he chooses to do with his life. Other characters such as Detective Hunt view Tucker mostly as this obscure entity, rarely meeting face to face and adamant that he will put him behind bars. However amidst that obsession there is an odd sort of admiration Hunt feels for the aging escape artist.

There really is a lot to marvel at in the approach Lowery and his crew take to executing this story. Any other filmmaker might feel compelled to lean into heavy handed drama or bitter irony, but instead the film flows in an almost fleeting style. It never dwells or indulges in anything but instead observes each encounter as it ploughs forward. It does not aim to explore or understand these characters as much as it simply wants to marvel at their communication with one another. This is never clearer than the scenes with Redford and Spacek, as the film seems content just to be in their presence and revel in their conversations. There are few actors for whom this approach would work, but in the company of legends such as these it seems completely fitting.

If this is Redford’s final film it is all the more poignant that is resembles something that came from his heyday, with cinematographer Joe Anderson doing the utmost to evoke a distinctly 1970s pastiche. I can’t deny that part of this film’s emotional resonance does not come from it possibly being Redford’s swansong, often utilising the actors own prolific legacy to do so. At one point Tucker is asked if he has ever ridden a horse and he answers that he has not, which almost seems like a joke as my mind immediately reverted back to Redford’s iconic portrayal of the Sundance Kid. That is just one small example of how a film can lean on something broader than its own presence to affect us, and in this case it happens to be the on screen farewell of a legend. That being said, speaking personally to Robert, if you ever felt like backtracking this whole retirement thing I would be happy with that.

‘The Old Man and the Gun’ is an eloquent and endlessly charming portrayal of a man who, for better or worse, was completely unforgettable.

Result: 8/10

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