Robert Redford is an impeccably controlled filmmaker who takes his art seriously. While none of his films have been as accessibly commercial as “Ordinary People,” which won him the directing Oscar, this movie is Redford’s best since “Quiz Show.”
A brainy thriller in the Sydney Pollack mode, “The Company You Keep” benefits from the imposed rigors of low-budget filmmaking. Redford developed the film for nine years for himself to direct and star in, and shot it in 40 days. The script by Lem Dobbs is a tight with plenty of juicy dialogue for a raft of attractive older actors, from Redford, Julie Christie and Sam Elliott to the always-super Chris Cooper, Nick Nolte, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins and Brendan Gleeson. Younger cast members Shia LaBeouf, Terrence Howard, Anna Kendrick and Brit Marling also carry their weight.
Smarter-than-your-average movie, “The Company You Keep” is edge-of-your-seat watchable in its first two-thirds –when it functions as a mystery chase thriller, with a dogged FBI agent (Howard) and eager-beaver local newspaper reporter (LaBeouf) tracking around the country various Weather Underground members who have surfaced. “We could have been taken at any moment,” explains one former Weatherman. “We could be taken now.”
But it’s a real let-down when it falls apart at its conclusion. It’s a casting issue. For those of us who grew up with movie stars Redford and Christie, the elaborate set-up is so freighted with the expectations and baggage of its two leads that the movie might have been better served without them. Nolte convinced Redford to cast Christie, who lives in Spain and still has doubts about her acting ability.
But still, especially for boomers who complain that there’s nothing for them to see, this jam-packed old-fashioned drama offers plenty to chew on. What drove these people to radical anti-war violence in the 60s, and how do they feel about it now, especially ones with entanglements like families? (OK, the score is too manipulative.)
Wily gravely-voiced character actor Nick Nolte makes the most of his turn in the film, when Redford’s former Weatherman pops in to grab some needed intelligence. And at Film Independent at LACMA’s screening and Elvis Mitchell Q & A last week, Nolte waxed eloquent on everything from how he and his pot-smoking pals dodged the draft in 60s Omaha, Nebraska to how he scored an acting award from the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival for an Alan Rudlph movie, “Afterglow.” They sold draft cards, sent folks to a shrink who diagnosed people as unfit for military service, and when that scam ended, broke people’s arms with a baseball bat.
“This story meant something to Bob,” said Nolte, “he was intimate with it, lived with it, gave it a lot of thought, it was gnawing at him. He’s an artist who gets entangled with his work.” As a director he’s not an authority figure, he said.
Back in the 60s, “I didn’t want to go to war,” Nolte said. “I couldn’t imagine myself killing anybody.” He drove a hearse registered in his name off a cliff onto the 9th hole of a golf course, and thousands of fake IDs were discovered with it. He was told, “You’re a felon, now you can’t go to Viet Nam.”
“This film took be back to that time,” he said. “I’m glad I never went to war.” Redford asked him to flip the peace sign for the first time in some 20 years: “It was pretty cool.”
As for working with Terrence Malick on one of his untitled movies, Nolte made fun of how the director shoots three-quarters of a scene–which freaks out the actors not wanting to land on the cutting room floor– and waits to shoot at magic hour every day. “Look at this tree!” “Let’s shoot the caterpillar!”