Sometimes a movie arrives that charms its way into your heart — and The Old Man & the Gun is just such an unassuming, exuberant gift. Only afterwards do you see that its roots go deeper, that its evocation of the past points to an uncertain future. In this self-proclaimed “mostly true story,” Robert Redford — still defining movie-star magnetism at 82 — takes on the role of Forrest Tucker, a real-life bank robber who prides himself on having escaped from prison 16 times. You might call him a “gentleman bandit,” since he’s unfailingly polite to those he robs. Hell, he never even puts bullets in his gun. That wouldn’t be nice, now, would it? And deep into his AARP years, Tucker still has the itch to add to his record of 80 stickups.
The exceptional writer-director David Lowery (A Ghost Story, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) had previously worked with Redford on the 2016 remake of Pete’s Dragon. But actor and filmmaker find a rhythm here that bubbles up into pure, irresistible pleasure. With a devilish wink, blue eyes that age cannot wither nor custom stale, and a soulful presence that comes from years of experience at his craft, the former Sundance Kid slips into the role like a comfy pair of boots. He had previously announced that this would be his swan song as an actor. Luckily, he’s since walked that back — we’re not ready to give up watching Redford show how it’s done. Not yet. Not ever.
Basing his screenplay on David Grann’s New Yorker article about Tucker’s career in lawbreaking, Lowery never pushes for effect, shooting Old Man like one of Redford’s 1970’s films — think The Sting or Three Days of the Condor — that expertly balance action and character. We meet this career criminal in 1981, after his jailbreak from San Quentin, and Redford makes it clear that this outlaw loves his trade too much to ever consider retirement. He’s a breed apart from his cohorts, the other members of the so-called Over-the-Hill gang played by Danny Glover and Tom Waits; crossing the country from Texas to Missouri has taken its toll on these aged boys. They’re feeling their aches and pains. Not Tucker. He only feels the thrill of the chase. Even John Hunt (a winningly low-key Casey Affleck), the cop on Tucker’s trail, starts showing a grudging appreciation.
If you don’t fall for the elderly rascal right away, you will when he meets up with a ranch widow named Jewel. As played by the glorious Sissy Spacek, whose flirty rapport with Redford is the essence of screen chemistry, this horse trainer is the audience surrogate. She can’t believe Tucker is the man he says he is. And when Jewel does accept it, she sticks with him anyway. On paper, the connection between the bank robber and the lady may seem like Hollywood pap. But watching Redford and Spacek court, spark and connect is a beguiling acting treat. Suddenly the camera disappears and there’s nothing between them and us. They’re magic.
Some have accused The Old Man & the Gun of glamorizing criminals. (Have they every seen Bonnie and Clyde? Or The Godfather? Or The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and… ?) But finding the humanity in flawed personalities is called “characterization,” and Redford and Lowery make it painfully clear how much Tucker’s unarmed bank jobs have robbed him of permanence, family and personal freedom. As he leads the cops on one last, merry chase, his defiance isn’t aimless — it’s the whole point. What the star does, and it’s no small thing, is to show why one man nurtures his renegade spirit above all else. And whether it’s really his final bow or not, Redford gives a virtuoso performance that feels like a valedictory. You want to salute him.