By: Steve Pulaski
Last year, David Lowery's A Ghost Story came and went in theaters, and awards season passed it by, not only as if it didn't exist, but as if it wasn't the most contemplative, intriguing, and absolutely poignant film released in 2017. Lowery's low-key wonder was the rare film you could argue was about anything you could make the claim it was about, and not in a way that undermined its ambition nor acted like a golf-clap for a good effort on being bold and broad-reaching. Among many of the praiseworthy details about that film was Lowery's ability to let his characters breathe and operate free of judgment; hell, he didn't even give them names. He allowed us and himself the agency to let them be liberated in a film rife with cosmic possibility and meaning.
His latest work, The Old Man & the Gun is laudable because it focuses on that same kind of agency. Adapted from the truer-than-fiction late-life story of career criminal Forrest Tucker, Lowery's film grapples with life, age, free will, and the pursuit of happiness, and while it's not as impossibly limitless as A Ghost Story, it's yet more evidence that Lowery is the brave new voice for film. I'd take a dozen films like these over one Pete's Dragon any day.
Forrest Tucker is played by Robert Redford, who confirmed this film would be his last motion picture. Actors say a lot of things, but Redford has proven time and time again he's not a man to BS, so I'll take him for his word. His statement recontextualizes The Old Man & the Gun quite a bit; what would perhaps otherwise be a light, almost quietly farcical send-up of crime films is instead a gentle, pastoral work that gift-wraps legacy into its already impressionistic package. Just look at the film's poster, which you'd probably pass up if you saw it in the theater or on the street given how plain it is. Look at Redford. It's as if he's tipping his hat as a way to say "farewell and thank you."
Adapted from David Grann's New Yorker article of the same name, Lowery's film follows Forrest as he makes a life (not a living) out of robbing banks in a unique way. A dapper gentleman with a kind cadence and a charismatic smile, he scouts banks for hours, sometimes days until the moment feels right, before waltzing in and making his move. No matter the length of time spent planning and prepping, his methodology for robbing is the same: he makes small-talk with the bank manager, opens his coat to reveal a revolver, remains steadfast yet smiley while the manager hustles and gathers hundreds of thousands of dollars, and he exits peacefully. You almost get the idea that if a manager became combative or disagreeable, Forrest would simply tip his hat forward and walk off. He's a simple man, clearly. He enjoys the rush of making a getaway.
He rides with two other geezers, played by Tom Waits and Danny Glover, who accompany him on his heists and help him count the money back at their apartment. We never see Forrest spend much money at all. We get the feeling he's still the kind of person who would price-shop trivial things like toothpaste and oranges on a recurring basis. In the opening moments of the film, he meets Jewel, played by Sissy Spacek, a curious older woman who lives a rustic life with a couple horses and the serenity of wide-open land. He takes a liking to her. Enough to reveal that he is a career criminal and escape artist extraordinaire.
Juxtaposed with Forrest's many robberies and brewing romance is Detective John Hunt's pursuit of the cunning crook. Hunt is a man experiencing a midlife crisis following his 40th birthday, one that even withstands hugs and reassurance from his loving wife and children. Tracking down Forrest gives him a bit of pep in his step, but it's one Hunt, played by Casey Affleck, conceals. Affleck brings the character to life by delivering another understated performance full of whispered dialog and subtle mannerisms that work to define a character just as emotionally complex and cerebral as Forrest.
The Old Man & the Gun is not Going in Style despite targeted towards the same audience. It's never blisteringly funny nor too captivating in its drama. Most films flounder when they try to drift at a leisurely pace (for every film like this, you get a dozen like Ron Shelton's Just Getting Started or George Armitage's Big Bounce, which look and feel like the filmmakers are making it up as they go), but The Old Man & the Gun doesn't fall over like a house of cards. It's a combination of Redford's soft smile and complimenting handsomeness, Lowery's go-with-the-flow pacing, and the rural scenery which is every bit as strong as Redford in terms of being the star here, that push it over the edge and make it a pleasant experience.
Lowery's films are opaque and mystifying and The Old Man & the Gun isn't an exception. Like A Ghost Story, you might not know why it hits you the way it does (if it does at all) and you might not be able to explain your mood when watching it. But like Forrest, you might ebb with it, smile a lot, and nod your head approvingly for Redford and company — and in this case, that was good enough for me.