The Old Man & the Gun is slated to be Robert Redford’s final film, and it feels as if David Lowery wrote and directed it with that in mind, since this is as much an elegy for Redford and New Hollywood as it is a crime drama on its own terms. Redford here plays a loosely fictionalized version of Forest Tucker, an American career criminal who escaped from prison eighteen times before finally being locked up for good in 2000, and passing away in 2004. Rather than presenting Tucker’s whole life, however, Lowery focuses on the later part of his career, which is resituated here from the late 1990s to the early 1980s, presumably to correspond with the golden age of Redford’s own career. Most of the film focuses on Forest and his other two sidekicks, Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits), as they pull off their last big string of bank heists. Meanwhile, Forest starts a romance with Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a woman he meets on the road, and together they try to make a go of things while the police operation closes in on the Over the Hill Gang, as they come to be known, under the watch of Detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck). On the face of it, that might look a bit like a mere exercise in nostalgia, but Forest feels so attuned to the characters Redford played in his golden era that this feels more like a continuation of that period in his career, as if Redford had to wait until he was old enough to play this one last New Hollywood character.
One of the real highlights of the film is Forest and Jewel’s rapport, along with Redford and Spacek’s rapport. From the moment these two characters meet on the side of the road, they feel as if they’re both too late in their respective lives to worry too much about the niceties of getting to know one another. Instead, they sink into the natural, immediate rapport of two people from the same generation, instantly recognizing a series of shared expectations, assumptions and stories that allow them to speak a common language from the moment they lay eyes on one another. After only a couple of seconds, they’ve known each other for years, and feel comfortable with conversational play, both making stuff up and then just as quickly admitting that they’ve both made stuff up. As a result, both actors feel younger than they have in years, buoyed up by this affirmation that older people can meet en plein air, on the side of the road, barefoot in the park, rather than in the midst of some sombre ageing narrative. During all these sequences, Lowery really nails Redford’s off-the-cuff conversational style, and the way his words seem to hang, free-floating, in mid-air, which gives his rapport with Spacek a wonderfully open sense of future journeys and possibilities.
That sense of play also works its way into the other real highlight of the film – the depiction of the bank robberies themselves. During all these sequences, the Over the Hill Gang – and Forest in particular – conduct themselves with etiquette, decorum and old-fashioned grace, making for a series of beautifully paced scenes in which the tact and tactility of these heists works its way into the substance and texture of the film itself. With Forest’s consummate mastery percolating into the jazzy substrate that underlies every scene, the temporality of the film and the temporality of the heist converge into one imperative – to work as dexterously as possible within limited time conditions. No surprise, then, that The Old Man & the Gun is a relatively short film, and features relatively short scenes, since Lowery often appears to be taking his cues from Forest as much as he is directing and articulating them.
As the heists proceed, this texture becomes particularly focused on Redford’s face and body, thanks in part to a series of close-ups during the heist scenes that emphasise the micro-gestures of pleasure that these sequences provide him. Not only do the heists allow Forest to revel in the musicality of his body in older age, but they also reveal a renewed mildness of the body that cuts against the desiccated postures of older people in most American cinema. Here, older people feel much looser and elastic than the rest of the cast, as if they have exhausted all of the body’s most violent and involuntary urges, and can now float, freely and buoyantly, with a new kind of purpose and momentum. That’s especially clear in the physiognomy of Tom Waits, who is further from his blustery stage persona than he’s ever been in any of his screen roles, making The Old Man & the Gun the first film – possibly – in which Waits is permitted to draw upon the lyricism of his very earliest albums.
Yet Lowery doesn’t simply suggest a new gentleness and mildness to the body in older age, but a new malleability and flexibility that imbues every gesture with a propensity towards dance, if handled or perceived in the right way. As the film proceeds, the dance of flirtation with Jewel, and the dance of the heists with the Over the Hill Gang, converge on something we rarely see from older characters in American cinema – embodied happiness, happiness experienced with and through the body. While interviewing yet another bank manager about Forest’s modus operandi, Hunt observes “Let me guess, he was a gentleman,” to which the manager simply responds “Well, yes, but he just seemed more…happy.” With each new bank job, Forest becomes happier and happier, exuding a kind of languorous haptics that work perfectly with the micro-modulations of Redford’s face. Wonderfully, Forest is always smiling, in some way or another, just as he’s always sinking ever more comfortably into his surroundings. The closer he comes to death – both by aging and by with each new heist – the more control he gains over time, just because there’s less unknown time to deal with: “That was then, this is now – and now I know what I’m doing.”
Beyond a certain point, then, narrative falls away from The Old Man & the Gun, to instead present Redford and Spacek continually dancing around time, weaving the past and present into an even more intensified and scintillating present, rather than being awed by the future. Like a late album by Van Morrison, the film in turn sinks into a deeper and deeper autumnal groove in which all of Redford’s most iconic roles seem to be present, but as sources of sustenance rather than nostalgia. At times, both characters seem to realise that happiness is actually more possible in older age, at which point all our obligations and necessities, and all the impulses that are not our own, have been exhausted: “You spend so much time thinking you’re happy and then you wake up one day and you’re now – maybe you never were in the first place, maybe you don’t even know what that means.” Critically, that process is never presented as resignation – as might occur in a more conventional film about ageing – but instead as a realisation from these characters that much of their life has been comprised by resignation, and that they are now finally in a position to put a stop to it.
Beyond a certain point, too, the body language of the film is less about eluding the police than about displacing, dodging and weaving around any end that seems to suggest itself, if only because endings nearly always have one meaning in films about older people. You might say that the film continuously eludes and displaces the end reserved for it by Hollywood, the end we might expect from it despite everything, turning Redford and Spacek’s body language into a contagious presence that travels vast distances to infiltrate the very characters who are trying to pursue them, and the film that seems almost destined to contain them. Try as the police might try to catch Forest, they find themselves unable to inhabit the present moment quite as intensively as he does. Catching him therefore means trying to sustain themselves on the same posed cusp between the past and future, as evinced in an evocative scene where they repeatedly rewind and fast-forward the footage from one of the bank robberies, searching for a present tense only Forest really embodies.
That displacement of any definite ending also means that the structure of the film starts to erode as it enters its third act and starts to glimpse its own “ending”. At first, it seems as if Forest, Lowery and Spacek have accepted a stable ending, as Forest is caught, and decides to accept a jail sentence for the first time in his life. The moment he is released, however, he returns to robberies, although we never really find out how this ends. Similarly, from the moment he is charged, the film starts to splinter into images and texts, as if dissociating itself with Forest’s own playful provisionality to avoid having to contain him in any one way. In doing so, Lowery perhaps pays Redford the ultimate tribute, giving him a line of flight from his filmography in which he can relish and revel in acting with the freeform joy of his earliest features. While Forest may revel in heists, he is, as he tells many people, an escape artist above all else. Watching Redford in this film is thus like watching a great actor escape the shackles his legacy might cast upon him, to discover something in himself that is as fresh and new as the first time he stepped in front of a camera. And it’s by displacing Redford from his star image that the film “ends,” true to Forest’s own observation that “You’re never exactly where you’re supposed to be – if you are, you’re dead.” Realising that the present moment is more limitless than any horizon, or that the present moment is a horizon, Lowery leaves Redford there, letting go of images to end the film with two bright intertitles: “When officers on the scene arrested him, they noticed…that he was smiling.”