It becomes apparent very early on in the proceedings that, for all that his fourth film is based on a true story, writer and director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, A Ghost Story) is more interested in stories than truths this time around. It’s not just the opening title card that proclaims “This Story is Mostly True” – an early throwaway shot of children whitewashing a fence indicates that, like Mark Twain before him, Lowery is engaging in a very American brand of mythmaking – he’s retelling the legend of the Great American Outlaw.
The outlaw in question is Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford), a spry septuagenarian bank robber who simply loves his job. Having bounced in and out of prison over the course of his life, Tucker is determined to spend his twilight years pursuing his chosen vocation with his gang (Tom Waits and Danny Glover as fellow bus pass bandits), and not the love of a good woman (Sissy Spacek as Tucker’s widow love interest) nor the dogged legwork of a driven cop (Casey Affleck) are enough the steer him from his course.
The Old Man & the Gun is acutely aware of its status as The Last Ever Robert Redford Movie (the 82-year-old screen legend has announced his retirement), and while it takes its broad cues from the career of serial prison escapee Tucker, as recorded in the eponymous New Yorker article by journalist David Grann, the film is much more concerned with articulating Redford’s mythology and legacy than Tucker’s. Thus we get repeated allusions to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, and a firm focus on Redford’s utterly undiminished charisma at the heart of the film. Here he’s all self-deprecating charm, twinkling blue eyes and an easy grin: everything that has made him such an arresting figure on the screen for some 50+ years. More than anything else this is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, Redford’s show – his last ride.
And as such, it’s a romantic one. We’re told that Tucker has spent most of his life behind bars or on the lam, but such a haphazard existence is framed as one preferable to the humdrum lives led by the film’s ensemble of non-Redfords. It certainly holds no small allure for Affleck’s John Hunt, who is well and truly feeling the workaday grind as he pursues Tucker across state after state. The actual emotional and physical cost of Tucker’s crimes are almost completely glossed over – he’s a free man doing what he loves, and while The Man may be able to cage his body, they cannot contain his spirit, dig?
Which is perhaps a pretty unsophisticated take on things, when you get right down to it, but we are very much here to print the legend, and it’s hard to stay mad at a film so middle-America beautiful, so warm, so breezy, and so downright charming. It would take a particularly hard heart not to be utterly undone by the late-life romance that blossoms between Redford and Spacek (who, as a veteran of Terrence Malick’s Badlands, has her own outlaw legacy), who bring both a wry playfulness and a surfeit of world-weary wisdom to the proceedings.
It’s doubtful that anyone actually living their lives in the ‘70s, that decade of oil crises, Watergate, and disillusionment, every dreamed for a second that the period would ever be regarded as a golden age, but here both actors feel like artifacts from a better, sweeter time, when blue-eyed bandits charmed stacks of cash from flustered bank tellers, when good men lived on both sides of the law, when the road was always open, even if it wasn’t going anywhere in particular.
There’s a existential undercurrent to The Old Man & the Gun that renders the film rather bittersweet: an unspoken understanding that the folklore it’s propagating isn’t exactly true, but that believing in it is a better option that cleaving to mere, muddled mortal reality. It’s a paean to an idea of America that maybe never really existed but certainly should have: an elegiac, heart-swelling last hurrah for both a myth and a man that embody something essential to the American self-image. The facts of the case are almost irrelevant; the truth is that The Old Man & the Gun is a fine film, and a fond farewell to a true screen icon.