Telluride Review: ‘The Old Man and the Gun’ is a Charming Sendoff for Redford

2018 TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL: If storied screen-actor Robert Redford does indeed retire following his performance in David Lowery‘s “The Old Man & the Gun,” then it is safe to say he has capped off a legendary career on a very high note. Redford stars opposite Academy Award-winners Sissy Spacek (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”) and Casey Affleck (“Manchester by the Sea”) in Lowery’s sixth feature film.

Based on a “mostly” true story, Redford stars as Forrest Tucker, an escaped 70-year old convict who goes on a crime spree of one heist after another while perplexed authorities – led by detective John Hunt (Affleck) – chase aimlessly after the old bandit. The charming and unrepentant swindler begins to captivate and win the hearts of the public, most notably Jewel (Spacek), his unfortunate career choice notwithstanding. Tucker was arrested and first broke out of jail at age 13 for stealing a bicycle, then spent 65 years in and out of prison for robbing banks. In total, he was incarcerated 17 times in his lifetime. And so, it goes the aging, happy, gentleman burglar who is so dedicated to his auspicious craft that he just can’t seem to walk away.

Several years ago, Redford discovered Tucker’s story in an article by David Grann in the New Yorker, and found the perverse yet upbeat nature of the gentleman desperado very alluring – the outlaw archetype has long been a part of Redford’s profile. He took the idea to Lowery, but it took the pair some time to bring their project to the screen. While trying to settle on the right approach, the two worked together on 2016’s “Pete’s Dragon.” There were many variations of the script, ranging from tragically dark and dreadful, to a joyful tale of perseverance – which in the end, is where the film landed. The pair spoke about how important it was for the movie to have a positive and optimistic story, considering the dark and cynical times in which we currently live.

At its heart, “The Old Man and the Gun” is a highly stylized tribute to Redford, and you can see why a film about a man who has a hard time walking away from his calling would attract the veteran actor for his final role. When asked about his proclaimed retirement, Redford replied “I also said ‘never say never.'” But then added, “I couldn’t think of a better film to go out on.” He went on to talk about getting out while the getting is good, and that he wants to quit while he’s ahead.

Lowery’s abstract technique is consistently tinged with bittersweet and mysterious themes, and the song remains the same with this tune, especially in the former. There are several scenes that point toward this sweet film being a nod to the actor, including a flashback of a young Redford (as Turner) escaping jail (taken from the 1966 film, “The Chase” from director Arthur Penn). In another salute, Affleck subtly runs his pointer finger across the side of his nose (referring to the 1973 Best Picture-winning film, “The Sting” directed by George Roy Hill).

Despite some flaws, I’m sure others will be quick to point out, “The Old Man and the Gun” is at the very least a lighthearted tale that makes for a charming outing and a gracious sendoff for Redford.  The chemistry between Redford and Spacek’s lights up the screen with the sizzle and crackle of a prescribed Midwestern burn. It was a pleasure to watch the film legends bounce tender moments off each other. And who wouldn’t be content watching a lean 93 minutes of that?

“The Old Man & the Gun” is being distributed by Fox Searchlight and opens on Friday, Sept. 28.

GRADE: (★★)