The premise of “The Old Man & the Gun” is telegraphed early on, and never falters: As obsessive real-life bank robber Forrest Tucker, Robert Redford plays a man who can’t stop doing the one thing he does best. In that regard, it’s the ideal project to reflect on the iconic actor’s career, which stretches back decades and seems as though it might never end. Redford may claim that “The Old Man and the Gun” is his final role, but like the smirking thief he plays here, there’s a lingering sense that even he doesn’t buy it.
While Redford’s nearly wordless performance in “All is Lost” provided an opportunity to contemplate the expressive contours of the actor’s face, writer-director David Lowery takes that hook into overdrive, transforming the potential for a cheeky nostalgia trip into a bonafide crowdpleaser on its own terms. Utilizing a grainy 16mm aesthetic and a period-appropriate soundtrack, Lowery time-travels to a long-dormant aesthetic so well that the movie may as well be a relic of the era it salutes. The filmmaker has been channeling late-’70s cinema ever since his expressionistic crime saga “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” but “The Old Man & the Gun” eschews pastiche for a sweet, affable character study that resurrects Redford’s original star power with a wet kiss. The entire picture amounts to a low-key cinematic resurrection.
Set in 1981, “The Old Man & the Gun” culls from journalist David Grann’s 2003 New Yorker article about Tucker’s decade-spanning robberies and jail breaks, but it roots the story in a specific turning point. Now in his seventies, Tucker has returned to the game for the umpteenth time, storming one bank after another and coaxing tellers to hand over their cash in a genial tone that baffles his victims. When Texas detective John Hunt (a deadpan Casey Affleck) begins the process of interviewing witnesses, they all speak to Tucker’s persistent happiness. In not-so-subtle terms, the movie poses a question about Redford’s ongoing cultural appeal, and uses the mystery of Tucker’s outlaw career to mine for answers.
But “The Old Man & the Gun” goes beyond empty celebrity worship to give Redford one of his best animating devices — a romance. This comes in the form of another familiar face from the ’70s: Sissy Spacek is a lonely widow named Jewel, whom Tucker picks up on his way from fleeing a robbery. Playfully acknowledging his profession — to the point where she’s not sure what to believe — Tucker takes Jewel to a diner and engages in the sort of seductive banter he hasn’t shown in decades. Their ensuing relationship, intercut with Hunt’s efforts to collect more details about Tucker’s past, develops into a bittersweet conundrum by implication: They’re an ideal match, but anyone who has a passing familiarity with this sort of movie knows that this sort of impractical union never lasts.
Lowery, however, shows enough to savvy to recognize that audiences will catch on to this game, and his screenplay works overtime to dodge expectations. The most violent heists unfold offscreen, and many of the most pertinent details arrive in explanatory text or time-jumps that assume we can fill in the blanks. This is the rare heist movie where the heists matter less than the man who can’t stop pulling them off. When Danny Glover and Tom Waits surface in fleeting scenes as Tucker’s accomplices, they require no complex backstories; they’re essentially pop-culture props with familiar faces that look like they belong in this story, and they vanish when it no longer calls for them.
Ultimately, “The Old Man & the Gun” settles into a study of two men who can’t shake the desire to complete their work. Tucker’s persistent crimes meet their match in Hunt’s desire to stop them, but when the pair meet in the bathroom of a greasy-spoon diner, it becomes clear that they’re feeding off a mutual desire to stay in the game.
Lowery treasures surfaces as much as story, and regards his main actor as a narrative object more substantial than any dialogue about the character’s past. Aided by cinematographer Joe Anderson’s sharp camerawork, the director often frames Redford in extreme closeup, examining each crease of his face as if it tells another story. His screenplay is loaded with attempts by the suave protagonist to dole out dime-store wisdoms. “Looking sharp,” he says, “will take you a long way.” That may be the closest the actor comes to an autobiographical statement.
Spacek doesn’t land nearly as much screen time as Redford, but her melancholic gaze epitomizes the bittersweet tone, and she provides an endearing match to Tucker’s relentless swagger. When he attempts to steal some jewelry for her in the middle of a shopping mall, she casually guides him back to the store, eschewing anger to exert power over the situation with a tenderness that imbues the movie with a distinctive emotional core. Redford fans will catch elements of “The Sting” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in the way Lowery reveals information in piecemeal, rarely venturing into overstatement. Daniel Hart’s jazzy, upbeat score keeps each scene flowing into the next, and Lowery dodges many of the expected big moments.
At times, the story suffers from a knee-jerk shyness, as if the filmmaker were hesitant to take the movie into more ambitious terrain, and a few scenes do stumble on obvious homage. (One montage of the character’s jailbreaks goes so far as to include footage from Redford’s 1966 crime drama “The Chase.”) But as the period-appropriate tunes keep playing (the soundtrack includes everything The Kinks to Simon & Garfunkle, who complement the movie’s one big showdown), “The Old Man & the Gun” generally feels like the best kind of tribute, one that understands the material so well that it inhabits its very essence.
Ultimately, the movie is a giant, lovable metaphor: Tucker’s criminal preoccupations are such a natural part of his life he seems as if he could keep at it forever, no matter the impracticalities, and he becomes an ideal avatar for Redford’s own achievements. Whether or not Redford has actually delivered his final performance, the movie makes it clear that the actor’s past credits ensure he’s around for good.
“The Old Man & the Gun” premiered at the 2018 Telluride Film Festival. Fox Searchlight will release it September 28.