As played by 82-year-old screen legend Robert Redford, the late Forrest Tucker is a jovial old gentleman who’s happiest when engaged in the only occupation he ever loved. And while bank robbery will never be thought of as an upwardly mobile profession, director David Lowery presents Tucker’s frequent heists as a noble line of work. This concept is sold to an audience purely on the twinkle-eyed charms of his aging star, who’s announced that The Old Man & the Gun will serve as his retirement from acting.
It’s only fitting that Redford’s final bow is playing a character known for dramatic exits: The one thing that distinguished the real-life Tucker even more than his brazen thefts was his talent for escaping the law. First imprisoned at age 15, Tucker successfully escaped incarceration 18 times. But while another filmmaker might have focused on the escape artist, Lowery relies on his fetishistic love of ’70s cinema to zero in on a particular period of the outlaw’s life: a string of robberies Tucker pulled off during the year after he paddled away from San Quentin State Prison in the summer of ’79.
Lowery, aided by cinematographer Joe Anderson (who shot second unit on the director’s first feature, 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), has photographed Redford’s swan song on 16mm film, which lends the laid-back drama a soft, grainy look that transports viewers to a bygone era of filmmaking. It’s one that relies on long, observational takes, featuring slow zooms and pans that have been lovingly captured by vintage lenses affixed to cameras that have long ceased rolling off the assembly line. The old-fashioned presentation of the movie’s southern landscape creates an aesthetic that uncoincidentally evokes the sun-drenched Texan fields of 1973’s Badlands and 1978’s Days of Heaven, two of the earliest movies by American maverick Terrence Malick, who’s clearly a defining influence on Lowery.
This affection for Malick’s work extends to the film’s casting as well, where Lowery has tapped Badlands’ Sissy Spacek as Jewel, a widowed farm owner who serves as the only grounding presence for Tucker between his bank jobs. Like the small handful of other women who have tempted Tucker with a more conventional life over the decades, Jewel has no idea that her handsome gentleman caller is leading a life of crime. She’s oblivious to the fact that he was fleeing the film’s opening heist when he stopped to lend her roadside assistance. Certainly, offering her a ride provides Tucker sufficient cover to elude the police, but the connection these two make is real and true, forged by an easygoing chemistry that makes you regret that these two Oscar winners never shared the screen before—and never will again, if Redford holds to his guns.
Apropos of firearms, while Tucker always carried a gun, in Lowery’s hands, he neither showed nor used one, keeping it concealed in his pocket as he demanded cash from teller after teller during his cross-state crime spree; this is an odd little detail, given the film’s title, which has been borrowed from a David Grann New Yorker article that served as a loose inspiration for Lowery’s script. But then, it’s the odd little details that add up to an oddly genial whole, from the way the bank tellers universally describe him to authorities as a “perfect gentleman” to the fact that his house is situated on the edge of a cemetery.
And while most people in Tucker’s line of work likely have one foot in the grave, his geriatric band of accomplices—Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (musician and sometime actor Tom Waits)—embraces the name they’re given by John Hunt (Oscar winner Casey Affleck, veteran of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Lowery’s last picture, A Ghost Story), the detective who’s hot on their trail: “The Over-the-Hill Gang.” To quote one of Glover’s best-known characters, they’re probably getting too old for this shit, but watching these geezers do what they do best is half the fun. The other half of enjoyment comes from watching these old friends simply hang out and amuse each other as they drink and tell stories; the punchline of one tale that’s told by Waits is certainly worth the price of admission.
But this is ultimately Tucker’s tale, and the key to your connection to this small slice of the thief’s life will depend on how familiar you are with Redford’s filmography; the more you’ve seen him in, the stronger your emotional response will be to, say, seeing him mount a horse one last time. This is especially true when Lowery—who previously tapped our nostalgia for the Sundance Kid when he cast Redford in his unexpectedly heart-wrenching Disney remake of Pete’s Dragon two years ago—treats us to an extended montage of Tucker’s great escapes, using old photos and footage of Redford’s 100-watt smile to pay tribute to a man who was never willing to give up doing what he loved.
Here’s hoping Redford’s retirement proves equally elusive. ◆
Starring Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Danny Glover, Tika Sumpter, Ari Elizabeth Johnson, Teagan Johnson, Gene Jones, John David Washington, Barlow Jacobs, Augustine Frizzell, Jennifer Joplin, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Keith Carradine, Robert Longstreet, Elisabeth Moss and Sissy Spacek. Written by David Lowery, based on the article by David Grann. Directed by Lowery. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner and Kendall Square and in the suburbs.