What struck me the most watching The Old Man and the Gun, a film that will most likely be one of the many vying for awards for the next few months, was just how old everything felt. Granted, I came to the movie expecting this to some extent; the trailer –a beautifully done folksy hymn– set the stage for me by introducing Robert Redford’s swan song performance as the endearingly polite Forest Tucker. The titular “Old Man”, Forest Tucker was immortalized in a New Yorker article for, you guessed it, his unbelievable career as a professional bank robber who worked well into his 70’s. The subdued pensiveness of the trailer was merely a taste though of what my experience watching the film had in store for me.
Even beyond the confines of the flickering screen, just the act of walking into the theater felt like stepping through a rip in time and space into the past. A late Friday afternoon showing, I must have been the youngest person in the theater by a good 30 years. And perhaps unsuprisingly considering I was watching the movie in one of Berkely’s many rundown movie theaters, much in the style of old-timey Nickelodians the screen itself was barely bigger than the slideshow projection you’d expect to find in a high school biology class. The size of the room matched accordingly and I half expected the ringing-bounce of a nearby piano to begin playing and consume the room with its joyous score.
Despite being written and directed by a 37-year-old in David Lowery (the creator of the similarly existential A Ghost Story), The Old Man and the Gun continued this tone with a remarkably quiet film that, for better and worse, injects the film with a feeling that is perhaps most reminiscent of a dying men silently reflecting on the nature of his life. The intentionally blurry and neutral colored portrait of Tucker’s last stand when combined with the wrinkled faces of Hollywood stars from yesteryear and wrapped in a ballad of rhythmic jazz and guitar heavy folk songs offers a sweat yet definitively older feeling movie.
How much this succeeds in creating an enjoyable film, I think, may be up to the viewer.
For me there are many moments, especially towards the beginning, where this laid-back attitude bleeds too much into the creation of the scenes themselves, resulting in stretches that drag largely due to their lack of urgency. As a result, neither the emotional catharsis nor the story-tale joy needed for me to truly love this movie is present. In many ways, though it feels like these faults were consciousness artistic decisions and that my problems with the movie may be more just a matter of taste compared to the other movies I’ve reviewed this year. This is because, above all else, Lowery’s singular vision is not meant to be a riveting bank heist movie or an epic treatise on the human condition but rather an inquisitive look at a man Lowery finds interesting.
Yes, Mr. Tucker is an old man that robs banks and runs from the police, but noticeably absent from The Old Man and The Gun are the usual blood splatters and meticulously crafted plans that often define heist movies. Even Tucker’s gun is purely for aesthetic and not practical use. And while Tucker’s peculiar work choice and heroic yet uncompromising mentality may invite epic monologues on the purpose of humanity, Lowery notably maneuvers his ship away from these more expected ambitions as well.
In their place lies a simple workmanlike ode to a man doing what he loves because it is all he knows.
In fitting fashion Robert Redford gives possibly his last performance in a role that is understated yet fully Oscar-worthy not for its for exuberant adherence to method acting — which often belies the best actor race — but rather for its honesty. Neither objectively bad or good, Tucker is a nice man who makes decisions which bring with them a slew of negative consequences for him and those around him, yet at the same time, there is a sense of joy and purpose that he derives from his work that is deeply enviable. Even beyond Tucker’s whimsical fairytale though, the characters that surround him are also deeply reflective of this theme. Tucker’s newfound lover Jewel (played with a warmly iron grace by Sissy Spacek) is fiercely resistant to giving up the family farm she can no longer afford because she loves living there so much. Meanwhile, Tucker’s adversary Detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck), the police officer tracking Tucker, starts off as a tired and sullen man newly celebrating his 40th birthday as he wonders where his years have gone. But Tucker’s exploits slowly convince Hunt to take pride in his honest police work and loving family — the two things that, for better or worse, define the story of his life.
In our era of blockbuster-filmmaking built on extracting the most bang for the buck, a film like The Old Man and the Gun is very unique indeed for its willingness to take such a melancholic look at a fantastical real-life story. It’s not an exceptional film, but this is, to an extent, the entire point. The beautiful thing about Forest Tucker is not that he’s some ageless Sundance Kid that never stopped robbing banks, but rather that he never stopped doing what he knew and loved. And while it may not always be pretty for Tucker and those who share his creed, The Old Man and the Gun has a wry admiration for those who strive for a life honestly lived and a story well told.