The Old Man and the Gun
Jacob Richardson | 08/10/2018
Somewhat slow, and undoubtedly a ‘comfortable’ film, The Old Man and the Gun still has enough charm and heart to carry you through its 90 minute runtime.
The Old Man and the Gun is based on the true story of Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford). After an audacious escape from prison at the age of 70, he and a group of other elderly gentleman began a spate of robberies that confounded authorities, and delighted the public. Director David Lowery explores this heist spree, while also interrogating the psyche of a criminal whose most defining trait was his sense of adventure, and his absolute gentlemanliness.
The last film Robert Redford made before his unfortunate death in 2018, The Old Man and the Gun is a calm, assured and lazily relaxed piece of filmmaking. It feels very much like sitting on a deck with a nice cup of tea, whiling away an afternoon while looking out at the scenery - it’s not that there isn’t substance, it’s just that it is such easy viewing and so relaxed that we mistake the substance for lack thereof.
Indeed, David Lowery (whose previous film, A Ghost Story, was a fantastic, innovative and moving take on a typical haunted house story) brings a sense of the real to The Old Man and the Gun. Shot mainly in Ohio with the Arriflex 416, Cooke S4 Lenses and utilising Vintage Zooms, Lowery paints a time-withered, grainy visage on screen that very much matches the deeply lined face of his main protagonist. It speaks to a sense of age; like a submissive admission that the story is past its prime, much like Tucker himself. It also gives us a sense that this was a simpler time. It was a time when bandits like Forrest Tucker could become folk heroes among a rebellious populous. Whereas nowadays, a jailbreak, bank robbing hero of the people like Forrest Tucker would undoubtedly be exposed mere hours after his rise to fame as having some leaked nude selfies or miscellaneous ties to Russia, David Lowery utilises the grain of his camera to remind us that what we are witnessing is an age where the indiscretions of a human being can be hidden from the greater story around their famed exploits.
The mischievous performance from Robert Redford perfectly balances the tonality of this piece. With a flick of the hair, a little jaunt in his step or when a smile breaks the aged craggy lines of his face, Redford is utterly convincing as a charmant gentleman with a sense of adventure, who just happens to enjoy robbing banks. His charm permeates every movement on screen. In one brief montage of bank managers giving descriptions of Tucker to the police, they all reference their fondness for him, noting how kind he seemed. This kindness shines through in the character not simply through the dialogue, which during these scenes is often sparse, but rather through Redford indelible demeanour. He lights up the screen with his presence, and as an audience it is much easier to believe the tale of Forrest Tucker, complete with rapid romance and jovial relationship with pursuing detective, because of it.
This is well supported in the performances around Redford; in particular from Sissy Spacek and Casey Affleck. Spacek plays Jewel, an elderly widow with a cash-hemorrhaging farm who runs across Redford on the road. As Jewel, Spacek oscillates between a fine, upstanding citizen and someone seeking a bit of danger. We never truly know (until the end of the film) how much she actually realises or suspects about Tucker, but Spacek keeps that mystery alive with an understanding smile here and there, or a flicker of the eyes.
Affleck, meanwhile, fully encapsulates the world weariness of Detective John Hunt. With a messy mustache, a mop of unkempt hair, a perpetually askew tie and a cynical demeanour, it is a pleasure to watch the case galvanize an otherwise lost man into action. His understanding of the unique relationship he has with Forrest Tucker, as a two headed snake eating itself, keeps the joys of this film alive, and further perpetuate old hollywood stereotypes around loveable bandits and forever failing cops - here, Hunt and Tucker could do this game of cat and mouse forever, and both would be endlessly happy.
Alas, it is in exploring this relationship that we can point to the first signs of the movie’s issues. While exploring the mutually dependent relationship between Hunt and Tucker, David Lowery has one of Hunt’s children actively speak in the scene what should have been subtext. It’s a sign of the hamfistedness with which this film sometimes deals with the larger themes at work; constantly working to explain itself to make for an easy viewing experience.
This easy viewing experience extends to our character’s motivations, circumstances and personalities. You won’t find any intriguing racial relationships here (despite Hunt’s bi-racial marriage, which must have created drama at the time), no commentary on social issues of the time. There isn’t even really a condemnation of the stigma around the aged, or their capability of the geriatric to do something as radical as robbing banks. Indeed, Lowery goes out of his way to note that the reason Forrest Tucker and his band of merry robbers are consistently hitting banks across the country is for fun and the thrill of it alone. Such a view keeps the entertainment light-hearted, but eschews any potential to explore social stigma around the elderly in the circumstances of their robbing banks. Perhaps Tucker could have been robbing banks because his pension didn’t pay enough to live on, or because he was significantly depressed. Instead, we’re presented with a smile inducing rogue who never once really commits to any actual message.
Lowery takes this further in never truly condemning or vilifying any side of this struggle for justice. As kind as he was, Tucker was robbing banks, causing distress to patrons, staff, etc. and generating a significant drain on state and federal financing in the continuing investigation from the FBI and local law enforcement. However, he is never painted as a villain in any way. In other films, one might instead expect the law (in this case, Hunt) to be cast as the foe, but here too Lowery leans away from making any hard stand. Instead, they are both preserved as perfectly innocent, loveable characters. As a comparison, we see a similar relationship in something like Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. Here, the law and the criminal are both able to be rooted for by the audience. But Spielberg makes a convincing case by the end that Frank Abagnale Jr (the justice evading fraudster) has done wrong, and deserves punishment. That character arc is one of reformation, as we see him eventually work for the FBI and begin to make amends to society for his wrongs.
Comparatively, Lowery never makes an attempt to satisfy such an arc. Instead, he seems to be saying that Tucker was born this way, and can’t escape the way he is made; that he will rob banks for the sheer sense of adventure until the day he dies. In many ways, this lack of gravitas, lack of accountability and lack of a strong message makes The Old Man and the Gun no more than a fun, forgettable trifle; something of a bygone era, when movies were entertainment rather than a sermon. And while the grainy cinematography and the roguish Redford hero are certainly welcome harkens back to the golden age of cinema, the lack of substance is not.
The Old Man and the Gun is a perfectly serviceable, upbeat and placid film. It’s just a shame that Redford’s final performance couldn’t carry more weight.