Thursday 13 December 2018

The sundown kid: "The Old Man & The Gun"

The Old Man & The Gun proceeds with a simplicity befitting that title, and the insouciant shrug of the subsequent title card that states "This, also, is a true story." That story concerns, yup, an old man with a gun, seen heading into a number of small-to-medium banks across Texas at the end of 1981, and using at least the threat of the gun to deprive them of their ready cash. The man was Forrest Tucker - the subject of local legend, written up by David Grann in a 2003 New Yorker article, and now played by Robert Redford in what has been announced as the actor's final role. Redford's Tucker is, naturally, not some grizzled old reprobate, but an inveterate charmer. He gets the telephone number of Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a woman he meets at the side of the freeway, within minutes of the film beginning, with the cops on his tail; he then makes her swoon over coffee by outlining his serene nobody-gets-hurt philosophy of heisting. In terms of careful image control, the film is right up there with the cancer-stricken John Wayne playing a fading gunfighter in 1976's The Shootist - except that Redford, poster boy of the Hollywood Left, adds a layer of romantic glamour the irascible Duke would have had no truck with: here's an old boy who devoted his final days to the redistribution of wealth. (Though the film is a shade coy about many things, including what Tucker actually did with all that folding money.)

The writer-director is the gifted David Lowery, assuming the title of modern American cinema's foremost atmospherist now that David Gordon Green has been tempted into horror remakes. (His claim was bolstered as much by 2016's Pete's Dragon - the best of Disney's recent live-action remakes, on which he first worked with Redford - as it was by last year's existential pie-eating contest A Ghost Story.) Old Man is the closest Lowery has come to repeating himself: in its basic set-up, it's not unlike a matinee version of Ain't Them Bodies Saints, his breakthrough lovers-on-the-run pic of 2013. (That film's male lead Casey Affleck recurs here as the lawman who gives Tucker and his associates - played here by Danny Glover and Tom Waits - the mocking sobriquet of "The Over-the-Hill Gang".) It's clear the director has left some of his usual art behind him in the move towards the movie centreground, but Old Man nevertheless presents as a film of appealingly brisk craft. In an age of straining auteurist statements - not least a two-and-a-half-hour remake of Suspiria - Lowery is an appreciably straightahead filmmaker: even A Ghost Story, which wound up spanning an entire millennium, clocked in at a mere 92 minutes. Judicious fades and dissolves carry us from one location to the next, connecting pursuer to pursued; Lisa Zeno Churgin's neat clipping rounds this anecdote off at ninety minutes, suggesting some affinity with Tucker's ethos - the movie gets in, gets its job done, and then gets out again.

That briskness sometimes tips into a casualness that almost certainly derives from having to organise the action around a proven master of the unruffled. Redford-as-Tucker is casual around the bank employees, casual with Spacek, casual even around the cops, which feels like a limitation after a while: there's not one memorable heist or tense getaway, and the script has nothing much to say about this character except "heh, this dude". "He's a guy who's old, who used to be young, and who loves robbing banks," Affleck tells his wife two-thirds of the way through, and that's really all the film has on Tucker. (Did Lowery even read the article?) It makes for a loving final role, because the camera has to keep coming back to Redford and the faraway gleam in his eye, the worldly wisdom Tucker gives out even as he takes away with his pistol. (On the importance of dressing well: "It makes you look like you know what you're doing, even when you don't.") Yet there's no mystery or darkness about the character (photos of the robber in his prime reveal Redford the sandy-haired pin-up), nothing standing between him and the sunset he's bound to walk smilingly towards. This Forrest Tucker is as mythically one-dimensional as the Sundance Kid or the magical pinchhitter Redford embodied in The Natural. Like those films, and many others in the Redford filmography, The Old Man & The Gun serves as genial, pleasant entertainment, a movie seemingly designed to elicit the post-screening comment of "they don't make 'em like that anymore" about both film and leading man. But they sure go easy.

The Old Man & The Gun is now playing in selected cinemas.

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