The Old Man & the Gun is a genre film that cannot be bothered with genre tropes. It is ostensibly a crime caper, the sort that people sometimes lovingly describe as “the type of movie they used to make.” The trouble is that writer/director David Lowery drains the story of any tension, suspense, or conflict. Sure, there are the usual archetypes of cops and robbers, but what interests Lowery is nostalgia. With its old timey title cards and cinematography, Lowery has affection for a period that never really existed in the first place. No one was ever as gentle, mild-mannered, and charming as the characters in this film – especially the criminals. Without much for an audience to sink its teeth into, this film succeeds and fails through the innate charisma of its cast. The trouble is that only a fraction of the cast has the charisma to elevate this material.
This is a somewhat true story that Lowery adapts from a 2003 New Yorker article by David Grann. It is about Forrest Tucker, an aging criminal who robbed banks well into his seventies. Robert Redford plays Tucker like he’s embarrassed by his chosen career path: he feels bad that he has to point a gun at unsuspecting bank employees, but now that it’s out there, he’d really appreciate it if they could give him a bag of money.
When we meet Forrest, he just got away from a robbery and charmed his way into coffee with Jewel (Sissy Spacek). He doesn’t tell her what he does, and their coy conversation has a bittersweet tone: both of them have lived long enough so that romance may be out of the picture. Advanced age does not stop Forrest from robbing banks with gusto, and soon he gets the attention of Dallas police detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck). The film follows Forrest’s brazen exploits, as both Jewel and John get closer to figuring out who he really is.
One reason to see this film is that Robert Redford announced he’s retiring from acting. Forrest Tucker is a fitting swansong: the character is similar to the lovable rogues he played in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, and even Sneakers. Although Redford’s face is weathered by age, his eyes and smile still have an ability to catch people off guard. That’s the charm to his scenes with Spacek, who is every bit his acting equal. Their scenes together are the best part of the film, mainly because the economical script is careful about what secrets they reveal.
Unfortunately, the scenes with these acting veterans are only a fraction of the films short running time. Casey Affleck is indeed talented, but he is not on Redford’s level, and yet we have scenes where he wanders through unimportant procedural detail. Elisabeth Moss plays Forrest’s daughter, and while she shares a scene with Affleck, it has no purpose beyond establishing Forrest has regrets, not mistakes. Danny Glover and Tom Waits appear as Forrest’s accomplices, and those scenes are perfunctory since they also lack any dramatic edge. When the inevitable betrayal occurs, it such an afterthought that the person betrayed barely seems to notice.
What interests Lowery, and Redford by extension, are manners. Everyone seems to like Forrest, even the people he held up. They say he’s a gentleman, with their eyes glazing over in a haze of fond memory. There is a long history of bank robbers serving as folk heroes, and Lowery tries to get at that legendary status without breaking proverbial eggs along the way. In fact, you never actually see Forrest point his gun at anyone, and the film belabors the point that he never once had the intention of firing. This kind of assurance is a bit like “The Implication” scene from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: we are told repeatedly that nothing will go wrong for these bank employees, but they don’t know that when there’s a gun in their face.
As a director, Lowery’s style is understated and assured. Now that he has a few features under his belt, he abandons flourishes in favor of simple compositions and straightforward editing. The movie looks great, too, with the grainy cinematography giving the suggestion it’s a lost document from the early 1980s when it took place. There are also numerous flashback sequences, including footage of Redford from one of his earlier films. These formal qualities point toward a movie’s central theme: Forrest Tucker is a man defined by his actions, and his actions are more than just “bank robber.” His actions in The Old Man & The Gun have seemingly no serious consequences, and so we’re left with an incomplete portrait. A better film would try and reconcile Forrest’s charms and his reliance on the threat of violence, and instead this film just persists in the lie that he was always a gentleman.