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Old Man & the Gun, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Natural"
5 stars

When Robert Redford began doing press for his latest film, “The Old Man & the Gun,” a couple of months ago, he caused quite a stir by suggesting that it would mark the conclusion of his acting career. Whether or not this proves to be true or not (and Redford himself seemed to be backtracking on the suggestion a few days after the news broke), he could not have picked a more appropriate vehicle to mark his departure from screen superstardom. While acting legends like Sean Connery and Gene Hackman have apparently decided to go out on such haphazard dross as “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “Welcome to Mooseport,” Redford could not have found a project with a more overtly valedictory feel to it if he deliberately went out in search of just such a thing in the first place. At the same time, this is not just an excuse to watch one of the most durable movie stars of our time take a final cinematic victory lap while viewers once again bask in the golden boy charms that made him such a star in the first place. In fact, this is a quirky and undeniably entertaining film that works both as a meditation on mortality and as a pleasantly screwy caper saga, confirms that writer-director David Lowery is one of the most intriguing new American filmmakers around and gives its star the chance to knock it out of the park one more time with one of the best and most endearing performances of his entire career.

Set around 1981, Redford plays Forrest Tucker, a genial man of a certain age who has spent his life pursuing his true calling. Unfortunately, his calling is robbing banks, a career that has seen him going in and out of jail for decades after committing robberies in which he is more inclined to deploy his disarming manner that a weapon—a gun may be mentioned in the title but we never see him brandishing one—and which leave his victims more charmed by his demeanor than traumatized by his actions. From the start, his criminal behavior is not exactly a secret—again, that title—but even he is thrown for a bit of a loop after pulling off the job that opens the film. After fleeing the scene, he sees a woman whose car has broken down on the highway and pulls over to offer assistance. While his reasons for doing this are not entirely altruistic—what better way to avoid pursuit than by stopping in the middle of an escape in order to offer roadside assistance?—it becomes something more than just a ruse when he gets to talking with his possible means of escape, a genial widow of a certain age named Jewel (Sissy Spacek). In just a few minutes, this Jewel has stolen the heart of a career their and he is so disarmed by her charms (him and everyone else in the theater) that it isn’t too long that he finds himself admitting what he really does for a living to her. She thinks that he is joking, of course, but it is that brief moment of hesitation where it seems as if his career choice might not be a deal-breaker with her after all that wins him over for good.

Somewhat more susceptible to Forrest’s charms is John Hunt (Casey Affleck), a Texas police detective who realizes, after the fact, that he was in a bank with his kids while Forrest was robbing it so quietly that no one knew it until the manager announced that there had been a robbery. Intrigued, John sets off in pursuit of this quarry and finds him to be far more elusive than expected and after doing a TV interview in which he brags that it will only be a matter of time before Forrest is captured, the old man retorts by gently teasing his pursuer even as he continues pulling off jobs with his equally aged cohorts, Teddy (Danny Glover) and Walter (Tom Waits) and wooing Jewel. Eventually the police do begin to close in and while that in itself is nothing new for Forrest, the fact that he now has someone who he would clearly like to share his life with could prove to be an insurmountable hurdle for him.

The story of “The Old Man & the Gun” is so goofy and unlikely that it should probably not come as too much of a surprise to learn that it is more or less based on a true story that was chronicled in a 2013 story in The New Yorker. Of course, anyone going to this film expecting high-octane thrills and spills is probably going to come away from it feeling mighty disappointed—instead of the sleek visual style and exquisitely choreographed action set pieces of the sort that Michael Mann created for such crime classics as “Thief” and “Heat,” it is more along the lines of the quirky little gems that the late Jonathan Demme used to crank out before hitting the big time with “Silence of the Lambs,” things like “Citizen’s Band,” “Melvin and Howard” and “Something Wild.” The task of bringing the story to the screen fell into the hands of David Lowery, whose career to date has seen him navigating between daring and dramatically nuanced indie projects like “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “A Ghost Story” and larger-scale studio projects like a remake of “Pete’s Dragon” that was about 16 times better than anyone could have realistically hoped for and where he still managed to keep his oddball indie qualities despite the enormous jump in size, scale and price. This time around, he has found a project that sits in the middle of those two extremes with a small-scale story offset by a fairly high-profile case but you never get any sense of tension in his efforts to blend the two together. Sure, there has probably been some futzing with the actual historical record—there surely must have been at least one bank teller out there who wasn’t charmed beyond measure by the guy robbing them but you wouldn’t know that from watching this—but this is clearly not meant to be a gritty authentic crime saga by a long shot and Lowery finds a way of keeping things on the light side while still giving the characters emotional underpinnings that are grounded in reality. Another bonus is just how funny it turns out to be throughout and not just through its depictions of Forrest’s roguish charms. There is, for example, a scene in which the Tom Waits character delivers an extended monologue about why he hates Christmas that a.) sounds like it could have come directly from one of his albums and b.) may actually top the infamous Phoebe Cates monologue from “Gremlins” as the most entertaining such speech in movie history.

Of course, the real drawing card here is Redford, who Lowery worked with previously on “Pete’s Dragon” and who seems to have struck up a rapport with the actor that few filmmakers outside of Sydney Pollack have managed to attain over the years. Of all the big time actors that Redford was contemporaries with—Beatty, Newman, Hoffman and Nicholson among them—he was perhaps the one whose connection with audiences was based to the largest extent on charm and personality than on acting chops. This is not to say that he didn’t have them—a look at films like “The Candidate” and “All the Presidents Men” will confirm that—but he did not often find himself working with material that made use of them. In later years, as he shifted more to behind-the-scenes work, both as an actor and as the leading light behind the Sundance Film Festival, he seemed to grow less interested in challenging himself as an actor and at a time when his generation of actors was moving into character parts, he was still trying to be the leading man in gibberish like “Havana.” In recent years, however, he has demonstrated a new commitment to acting in projects ranging from blockbusters like “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (where his rare villainous turn was one of the film’s best surprises) to more ambitious smaller projects like “All Is Lost” and “Our Souls at Night.” His work here is one of the very best performances of his entire career, one that looks on the surface like he is simply turning on the still-considerable charm but which proves to have more depth and soul to it than one might notice at first glance. His scenes with Sissy Spacek (who gets the best part she has had in a film in a while as well) crackle with a life and energy that is too often missing in screen couples these days—an entire movie could be made simply out of their initial encounter from the traffic stop to the diner and I guarantee that it would be more spellbinding to watch than virtually anything else at the multiplex these days. He is also generous with the other members of the cast in allowing them the chance to shine as well—Casey Affleck has not been this engaging in a long time and watching Redford playing off of the likes of Glover and Waits is sheer heaven to watch. (Seriously, the minute this film comes out on video, the aforementioned Waits Christmas story is going into my permanent holiday rotation along with “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Gremlins” and Paul Shaffer doing his impression of Cher singing “O Holy Night.”

“The Old Man & the Gun” is a delight to watch and if there is a flaw to it, it is that the raves it should earn may cause some viewers to expect something weightier than it is and come away from it wondering what all the fuss was about. In a way, it is almost as much of a throwback to a different and more ambitious era of moviemaking as Redford himself. There used to be a time when a quiet film made exclusively for adult audiences that was more invested in characters and performances than in flashy effects or ludicrous plot twists could not only get made but could actually thrive. Such movies are now a rarity, alas, but this one is certainly a reminder of those long gone days. As for Redford, if this does prove to be the end of his career as an actor and screen icon, it is impossible to imagine him leaving that stage on a higher possible note than he has here.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32185&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/05/18 10:40:15
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/21/19 Loopy Solid but nothing special 3 stars
10/19/18 Bob Dog Old school heist flick goes down smooth. 4 stars
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  28-Sep-2018 (PG-13)
  DVD: 15-Jan-2019


  DVD: 15-Jan-2019

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