If you’re feeling down in the dumps about the direction of your life and feel like the only kind of self-affirming story that will pick you up is one about an old man who has lived selfishly before finally figuring out his life was worth something because he acknowledged his selfishness and, heck, it was exciting, The Old Man & the Gun is probably the narrative you’re looking for.
Writer-director David Lowery (A Ghost Story, Pete’s Dragon and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) is among the more exciting “minor” auteurs working these days, in the sense that he hasn’t had a big hit but still consistently creates personal, well-crafted, and, yes, flawed movies. You know a Lowery movie when you see it: a little slow, pudgy in the pacing, stylistic but not grating and, until now, pretty melancholy. A Ghost Story was in my top 10 last year not because I loved it but because it was original, heartfelt, and unforgettable in the broad strokes (but problematic in the details). The Old Man & the Gun is kind of a return for Lowery to the aesthetic concerns of small-time crime he first ventured into with Saints but also represents a new journey for him — making a movie that isn’t sad as hell; Dragon made my wife sob; of all the Disney animated-to-live action, it’s the only one with artistry and truth.
More prominently: This is Lowery’s second teaming with Robert Redford after Pete’s Dragon. Redford is fun as Forrest Tucker, an octogenarian bank robber known for his non-violent heists and frequent escapes from detention. Hot on his heels is Detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck, in his third pairing with Lowery). The apple of Tucker’s eye is Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a local woman whom he meets during a getaway and starts to woo. There are a few minor roles populated by character actors — Danny Glover and Tom Waits play Tucker’s fellow criminals while Elisabeth Moss plays an estranged daughter. It’s a good cast. The kind of cast with whom you populate the bottom of a poster. A promise.
Promise kept: Redford is charming, chewing the screen. Promise broken: That Tucker is a character worth following, not the least because he’s ultimately a self-serving dick whose adventures lead basically nowhere. The biggest problem with The Old Man & the Gun is that we simply never really know what Tucker wants. OK, so we do know what he wants in the big picture: freedom to live a life that excites him. But the story told by Lowery’s script seems to end endlessly, with story arcs coming right up to the credits but continuing onward, onward, onward. There’s just nothing engaging happening between Point A and Point B.
Most surprising is that as the movie winds down, we see a fun montage of Tucker’s various escapes, including footage of a young Redford. As an audience member, you’ll get a kick out of seeing that young, beautiful, blue-eyed, all-American face on the screen again. But I’d be surprised if most sitting there don’t wonder why we’re suddenly seeing all of this character-setting now.
Doesn’t help that Affleck is playing a detective without much going on. The story would be more or less the same without the cops chasing Tucker. Affleck’s sequences drag; it’s not much of a cat-and-mouse game when the movie’s mostly interested in showing off the mouse chilling out while the cat sleeps on the sidelines.
The movie is so extraordinarily shallow that, narrative structure problems aside, it simply lacks any self-awareness outside of the Redford meta-stuff. Tucker’s character is a huge dickhead whose main desire is to live a fun life regardless of whomever he hurts. He’s the sort of character who deserves a comeuppance or internal reckoning. Goes without saying he never really experiences one. Goes without saying this is the sort of narrative where his relationship with local law enforcement is mutual, begrudged respect. I have no problem with movies about criminals you love and cops you hate. Deification of villainy is a time-honored storytelling tradition. But coupled with the general lack of anything going on in The Old Man & the Gun, it feels downright sloppy to make it devoid of character growth or, hell, a coherent moral center.
Redford will always be an American classic, and if this is truly his last leading role, it certainly doesn’t waste his charms. But it doesn’t really hold together and will probably go down as Lowery’s most minor work thus far in a career full of them.