Though helmed by Robert Redford and scripted by the same hand behind Haywire, the best thing about The Company You Keep is the casting. Redford himself stars as Jim Grant, an upstate New York attorney who’s startled by the news that a fellow erstwhile anti-Vietnam activist and Weather Underground member, Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), had been arrested on long-gestating murder charges surrounding a 1971 Michigan bank heist, having lived under an assumed identity for some 40-plus years. And she’s not the only one who’s been hiding from the government, as Ben Shepard (Shia LeBeouf), a low-level journalist, uncovers that Grant is, in reality, Nick Sloan, one of Solarz’s suspected accomplices in the shooting. Soon enough, Sloan is on the run from the F.B.I., represented here by Anna Kendrick and Terrence Howard, and the film becomes something of a quest, allowing Redford to enjoy encounters with fellow luminaries like Richard Jenkins, Nick Nolte, Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, and Chris Cooper.
It’s an intensely promising setup, marked by a melancholic self-reflexivity, as many of these actors were, at one point or another, purveyors of very public, and largely leftist, political opinions. The casting of such familiar and distinct performers gives the film a comfy, worn-in tone, and for many viewers, their time-ravaged visages and voices recall expansive cinematic and social histories. There are moments, such as the back and forth between Sloan and Jenkins’s Jed, a philosophy professor, and Nolte’s far-too-brief appearance, where the inherent reflectiveness of the material shines through, but Redford too often allows Lem Dobbs’s leisurely script to lead the charge.
Indeed, the drama becomes excessively detoured and is overrun by a stunningly impersonal political sentiment, complicated by a tensionless mystery element involving just how involved Sloan was with the Michigan robbery. Sloan’s attempts to locate old flame Mimi (Christie) takes precedence, which begets both a corruption plot involving a local police honcho, Henry Osborne (Brendan Gleeson), and a romance between Shepard and Osborne’s daughter, Rebecca (Brit Marling). In these instances, one feels as if Redford may be handing off the proverbial baton to a younger generation of performers and public figures, but if so, the director certainly doesn’t back it up with detail or any unique ideas.
The story ends up overriding the minor personal elements Redford has to offer, that of his reputation, his professionalism, and his friendship. A little under 20 years after Quiz Show, Redford’s masterpiece and one of the defining works of the ’90s, the act of watching The Company You Keep feels tantamount to reading an impressive résumé, littered with top-tier references and impeccable past employment. So, Redford implies that his legacy will not be built on wisdom, but on the hopeful diligence of political ideals. On this count, Redford’s politics are more indebted to nostalgia than the now.
Admirably shot by Adriano Goldman, who brought a similar gloomy glow to his work with Cary Fukunuga, and accompanied by a reliably moody synth score by Cliff Martinez, Redford’s latest is disengaged in a very fashionable way: By further canonizing the activism of the 1960s and ’70s, including that of his generation of film icons, he slyly pleads ignorant, or simply ambivalent, to modern political activism and modern Hollywood. The Company You Keep is a lamb in lion’s clothing, a would-be thriller masquerading a long, dry monument to the reliability and comfort of community, blindly cocooned by its own nostalgic self-regard.