Chemistry counts for something, and actors Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek have it in spades in the trifling-at-best, galling-at-worst dramedy The Old Man & the Gun. Adapting a 2003 New Yorker article of the same name by David Grann about an impeccably well-behaved career criminal, writer-director David Lowery leans hard into the natural charm between his two old-pro performers, and the results are initially infectious.
Redford plays Forrest Tucker, a refined robber of banks who’s spent a lifetime in and out of prison. He relies more on his genteel way with words than he does the revolver in his coat pocket—a technique that’s served him well for a long stretch (the film is mostly set in Texas, circa 1981). After his latest job, which he pulls off before the opening titles have finished, he stops on the side of the freeway to assist a sweet woman, Jewel (Spacek), whose vehicle has broken down. It’s not an entirely altruistic act; Forrest is trying to shake the cops and this good Samaritan bit makes for a perfect deflection. What on-the-lam criminal would help a stranded old lady, after all?
It feels wrong, however, to call either of these two “old.” After Forrest and Jewel head to a diner to solidify their meet-cute, the duo act likes a pair of teenagers on a giggly first date. Spacek beams in Redford’s presence and he, in his rugged and highly self-confident way, complements her glow. So it’s totally credible when Forrest tells Jewel straight out that heists are his trade and her smile doesn’t vanish. It just wavers a bit, settling into a more muted grin. You can tell that, whether Forrest is telling the truth or a lie, she’s hooked. The allure of this decorous stranger wins out—for now.
From there, Lowery proceeds leisurely through a very low-stakes tale. There are a few more bank robberies, as well as a detective, John Hunt (Casey Affleck), who connects all the activity back to Forrest. But none of it seems to matter much. It’s all just a way for Forrest to pass the time until he’s literally out of time. And the same could be said for Redford, who has noted in interviews that this will likely be his final on-screen role.
The Old Man & the Gun is a self-aware victory lap for the Sundance Kid as he goes gentle into that good night. Would that this felt like more of a giving gesture than it does an act of narcissistic hubris. Almost every scene hinges on characters who speak well of Forrest, and by extension Redford, remarking on his kindness and virtue even when he’s robbing them blind. Hunt is no less moonstruck when Forrest cavalierly approaches him in a restaurant hallway and nearly cops to his lifetime of larceny. That Hunt doesn’t arrest Forrest on the spot is proof that the old guy’s hauteur is just too darn irresistible.
The film still kind of works whenever Spacek is on screen because her character gives as good she gets. Jewel is captivated by Forrest, but she maintains a healthy level of skepticism. It’s clear that his bullshitting will never get the better of her, and so the duo’s every interaction has the feel of an impassioned old-time Hollywood romance with more benevolent combatants. (Think Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn teaming up in their twilight years.) There’s likewise some small pleasure to be had watching Redford lackadaisically riff with Danny Glover and Tom Waits, who play Forrest’s two gruff yet genial partners in crime. Little fazes this trio. They can even make light out of a bullet to the gut.
Lowery has a similarly carefree, bordering on insubstantial touch, and this gives rise to several rank absurdities. None are more glaring than the film’s peculiar vision of an American South in which Hunt’s African-American wife, Maureen (Tika Sumpter), and their two mixed-race children (Ari Elizabeth Johnson and Teagan Johnson) appear to live the most ideal of existences. In an especially egregious scene, which we’re seemingly supposed to take with dewy-eyed sincerity, one of the young girls writes a get-well card to President Ronald Reagan not long after his shooting by John Hinckley. Erasing the specter of racism isn’t a great look for your Robert Redford valediction. Lowery’s remake of Pete’s Dragon was less fanciful.