2018 is proving to be an end of an era in many ways. Finishing what 2016 started, it’s the end of hegemonically white male filmmaking in Hollywood: opening up an unprecedented age in Hollywood history in which so many of the year’s unimpeachable ‘best films’ are written, directed and fronted by people of color and women. It’s year-long embarrassment of riches has put an end to the idea that the “good movies” each year only come out in November and December. And with the release of The Old Man and the Gun (2018), it is the end of esteemed actor Robert Redford’s decades-long career as a filmmaker.
Redford has enjoyed a storied time in Hollywood, helping to shape some of the most important and best-remembered films of the last 58 years. He played one half of the dynamic duo of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), which helped to reimagine the classic western into the fun and funny form that it turned to during its revisionist period. He played real-life hero Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men (1976), the film about the breaking of the Watergate Scandal and the narrative precursor to last year’s The Post (2017). And he played the villainous Alexander Pierce in Captain America: The Winter Solider (2014), a deeply undercover Hydra operative at the very height of SHIELD command, in a movie that is itself deeply indebted to the work he did on All the President’s Men.
But his time on the silver screen has come, and now tragically gone. His final film, the whimsical, romantic and deeply Redfordesque The Old Man and the Gun, will by all accounts be his last: the feather in the cap of a long, varied and truly exceptional body of work spanning the very best that Hollywood has to offer. And caps off this resplendent career with the same bittersweet and semi-comic charm that we have come to expect of Robert Redford: most of us over the long course of our entire lives.
Robert Redford — looking infinitely more like the octogenarian he is than ever before, his face a crisscrossed web of leathery, lived-in wrinkles — plays Forrest Tucker, a career criminal whose working across the country with his old partners, the so-called Over the Hill Gang, knocking off banks in their twilight years. Not your ordinary lot of hardened criminals, though, they (and especially Tucker) are gentlemen to the core: quick to smile, slow to anger, and simply beyond charming. After quietly holding up a bank that policeman John Hunt (Casey Affleck) was in with his young children — so quietly, in fact, that he didn’t realize that anything was the matter until after the Tucker had calmly left the premises — Hunt begins to connect the dots from the Over the Hill Gang’s interstate crime spree, threating not just Tucker and the gang, but his winter romance with forever farm girl Jewel (Sissy Spacek).
Never mind the story, which deftly balances the latter-day romance between Forrest and Jewel with the light-hearted capers that Forrest pulls off with his gang. Never mind the director, David Lowery, who brings all the skills acquired from the similarly engrossing Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) and A Ghost Story (2017) to bear here. You don’t even need to mind the supporting cast, many of whom boast comparably long and excellent work to Redford and commit themselves admirably here. The Old Man and the Gun is Redford’s movie, and it lives and dies at the feet of his performance.
Thankfully, though, Redford throws himself into this role just as you would expect him to. He is witty and charming and brings a tangible level of class to the proceedings that would simply not be there in his absence. He sweet talks everybody from the tellers and managers at the banks he’s robbing to the cops who are hunting him down to the sometimes-suspicious Jewel who grows to suspect that her new beau is something other than what he appears to be, and, in the process, the audience as well. Despite the impossible lightness of the material, he brings the full weight of his profound talents to bear on the proceedings, delivering what might actually just be one of the best performances of his career as a direct result of it. And given that Redford has never won an Oscar for acting in his entire career — and was actually only nominated once for The Sting (1973) — he stands a very good chance of steamrolling through this year’s competition in the Academy’s presumptive last chance to correct that oversight.
Normally, I can’t stand movies like this: feel-good puff-pieces about gracefully aging characters desperate for one last chance to show the kids how it’s done and prove to themselves that they aren’t as old as people tell them that they are. In fact, a lot of those roles have occupied these last few years of Redford’s filmography. But The Old Man and the Gun is different. It isn’t about proving to the world how “age is only a number” or getting one over on the next generation. It’s simply the story of a guy who found the one thing in life that he loves to do, and it just so happens to be robbing banks. It doesn’t matter if he’s seven years old or seventy — a fact that the film itself makes abundantly clear in a humorous montage of Tucker’s 16 prison breaks over the course of his life of crime — he’s just happy to go to work each morning with his smile in hand a pocket full of repartee.
When it comes down to it, The Old Man and the Gun is simply Hollywood front-and-center. It’s a light-hearted heist movie with the world’s most charming protagonist. It’s a heartfelt romance that unfolds naturally on the screen. And it’s about one splendid lifetime, lived uncompromisingly to the fullest.
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