The Old Man and the Gun, a winsome, sometimes-sepia-tinted fable about a kindly, elderly bank robber, is apparently based on a true story, but it’s also an homage to the cinematic career of its star, Robert Redford. Like Forrest Tucker (the film’s eponymous Old Man, a serial prison-escapee who keeps returning to a life of politely-executed hold-ups), Redford has been deep in his own racket for a long time. The film enjoys reminding you of these parallels between the character and the actor. In one charming, archival-ish montage, the not-bored-anymore detective on Forrest’s trail, John Hunt (a groggy Casey Affleck), has learned the man’s identity and rummages through document boxes filled with crisp rap sheets and yellowing photos, uncovering images of Forrest (Redford) from various younger days. As he unfurls the chronological nuances of a long and prolific career, we watch the recognizable face of our hero grow young and old again. Comparatively speaking, even Redford’s own photo albums might not do this work so well. The montage neatly reminds us that for Redford’s first Redford’s first professional role in the good-guy-robber character, many years ago, he was referred to not as “the Old Man,” but as “The Kid.” That and the fact that Forrest’s sometime-collaborators, a coterie of equally-charming, criminal seniors (Danny Glover and Tom Waits), are referred to not as “The Hole-in-the-Wall Gang,” but “The Over-the-Hill Gang.” This is a real-life detail, but it’s also a really swell coincidence.
The film, by David Lowery, who directed last year’s A Ghost Story, is both ruminative and pithy at an hour and a half, with delicate performances (including smaller roles by Tika Sumpter and Elizabeth Moss) and a thoughtful soundtrack. Directly inspired by a 2003 New Yorker profile of Forrest, it was suggested that it might become Redford’s last film.
There are lots of references to Redford’s career. There’s an escape flashback literally cut right out of The Chase (1966), and a few con interactions that would find themselves at home in The Sting (1971). The film’s interest in how an older man functions in a standout career traditionally held by younger ones certainly harks to The Natural (1984). There’s maybe even a Horse Whisperer (1998) moment. These nods are not Easter eggs, though— the film is interested in doing something other than simply ornamenting itself with winks and trivia. These moments allow the film to play not only to the strengths of its star, but also to the strengths of an entire banker’s box worth of performances.
The film spends most of its energy dreamily toying with this Redford/Tucker duality, so its indifference to finding complete answers to some of the questions it poses doesn’t feel like neglect so much as part of a more wistful agenda. Why does Forrest rob banks? The film does not conclusively know, and it does not conclusively care. The subtlety with which it handles this element is a bit startling—certainly, The New Yorker profile of Tucker cares a lot about this question. David Grann seems to ask this a lot of his interviewees: ‘“He didn’t do it for the money,’ his wife said.” ‘“I think he wanted to become a legend, like Bonnie and Clyde,’ said Captain Chinn.” Maybe it was glory, the article nods. Maybe it was a sign of some deeper psychological condition; “A court psychologist who examined Tucker noted, ‘I have seen many individuals who are self-aggrandizing, and that would like to make their mark in history… but none, I must admit, that I heard that would want to, other than in the movies, go out in a blaze in a bank robbery. It is beyond the realm of psychological prediction.”’
Apparently the real Tucker was also unable to provide a “satisfactory answer” to this question—even to his long-lost son, who wrote to him to ask for one. The article intimates that Tucker may have been addicted to the rush, to the con, to the elaborate performance required to pull off something so big. Perhaps this weird activity was how he felt challenged. Or maybe it was an attempt to redo or regain stolen youth. Forrest was in jail for the first time at fifteen.
The film considers these explanations without settling on one too firmly. Its most conclusive determination is that Forrest is good at holding up banks; it’s the only thing he knows how to do well, and he wants to do the thing he does well. This is an odd, maybe accidental, separation from the Redford parallel the film has been trotting alongside for so long. While Redford started as an actor, his highest professional achievements (including an Oscar in 1980) came from learning how to do something else, directing.
But the film offers an interesting gambit: the story of a man who keeps imitating himself, but must try different ways in order to keep pulling it off. The film’s dwelling on this more would have provided welcome readings on growth, success, and age—but its saddest scenes (Hunt’s interview with the daughter Forrest did not know he had, an idyllic domestic scene which Forrest inexplicably finds stifling) reveal the narrowness of our potential after we have imitated ourselves for so long. While he can break out of prison when he needs to, Forrest ultimately cannot break free of the social confines he has spent a lifetime building around himself. The film may not know why he robs banks, but it knows that he is trapped in an archetype of his own design.
The film’s investments in these questions somewhat rob it of its genre. Heist movies have an investment in or argument about capitalism, materialism, anarchism, or power. What does money, acquired in this way, mean to the film? It’s fine if it means nothing, as long as the film has another currency up its sleeve with which to provide alternative meaning. What the film offers instead, to these parameters, is sentimentality. The film is more interested in Forrest as a likeable, nice guy who likes getting away with stealing, as a sort of older Sundance Kid taken at face value. (Actually, Forrest is a lot more like Butch Cassidy, Paul Newman’s part, who admits to the Kid that he has never shot anybody before. Despite the word “gun” in the film’s title, neither has Forrest.) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, though, asks questions about cycles of economical destruction and depicts a tug-of-war over capitalist interests between the robber-baron, colonialist forces industrializing the West and ordinary settlers (with the bandits, once they head down to Bolivia, flipping sides and embodying the problematic politics of the very institution they escaped in America). The Old Man and the Gun is content to nod at this film from afar, calling it to mind with moments like the first shot (in which Forrest looks familiar in a mustache and a hat) and keeping it at about this distance the whole time. In an incidental way, this offers a reading about what we remember about movies we’ve seen: rough outlines, vague images, men on galloping horses, tips of caps, flashing smiles, one-liners. At this distance, “compare and contrast” seems like a satisfactory argument, in and of itself, rather than as a schematic to ride one out.
So, amid all the primary sources it contains, The Old Man and the Gun becomes itself the one type of document that does not appear in the whole thing: a love letter. Which isn’t to say, by the way, that there isn’t romance— there is, in fact, a bittersweet love story subplot with a forgiving Sissy Spacek. But rather unlike the Hemingway novella that lends the film its catchy title (via the New Yorker article), the film’s main concern is how to build a legacy out of a life so lush with exploits. The film asks this question too much and too directly, but this problem goes well with the turf of nostalgic projects. Though the film is one of my own favorite things from this year in the particular category of “brown paper packages tied up with string,” it still fades in and out as easily as a happy memory.