Here's a nice respite for movie lovers, an elegiac tale of a whimsical old bank robber who stays in the game because there's nothing else quite like it. A fellow should do what he loves, right? The Old Man & The Gun is about Forrest Silva Tucker, the sort of gentleman bandit that Hollywood has always loved. The message has always been that it's fine to take what is not yours, as long as you're polite about it and do it with some style.
The story is set in 1981, when Tucker is well into his 70s, though bank managers describe him to the police as anywhere from 50 to 60. He's not overly jaunty, but he wears a nice suit and hat and does his robbing with a great degree of calm and professionalism. He has a couple of pals who go on jobs with him, but he seems to be the brain of the outfit.
The trio work constantly, cutting a swath through Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri. They like small banks, because they don't want to look like they're showing off, or risk going beyond their area of expertise. When Tucker meets a nice woman, a widow roughly his own age, she provides a soft diversion for him in between bank jobs. He tells her he's a robber; she doesn't believe him. As played by Robert Redford, hobbling and looking his age, Tucker is sweet and sly, and casually flirtatious. She doesn't know what to make of him, but suspects he may be more than just a nice old guy.
Redford has always been just short of being a fine actor. He's always a bit stiff, too pretty. Though he did a lot of period pieces, he always looked like a modern guy in an old fashioned costume. As Roy Hobbs, the aging baseball player in The Natural, he tried to affect a Gary Cooperish earthiness, but couldn't hide his intelligence long enough to be a convincing country hunk. Yet, he overcame being wrong for almost every part with nothing but his sheer likeability, or star quality. As Tucker, he somehow shakes off 50 years of glamor and finds himself. Tucker is strong willed, crafty, a thrill seeker, a rascal. Was this Redford all along?
Redford is so watchable here that we wonder how long he has waited for this sort of role. All of the great actors eventually have their "old guy" character, where they prove they can still deliver, and this is Redford's. Thinking of him, his age, his long and illustrious career, and a recent admission that he might be done acting, gives the movie a weightiness that it wouldn't have with someone else as Tucker.
Sissy Spacek, as the widow who befriends Tucker, is nearly as good. Their scenes together are easy and charming; they like each other because they make no demands on each other. She meets him for coffee now and then, and we're nearly as happy as he is when she arrives. Gradually, she fears he might be the crook he claims to be. After all, he keeps an old revolver in his car's glove compartment, and he almost convinces her to steal a bracelet from a shopping mall, just for laughs. Still, she continues to meet him for coffee and some light conversation. "I like that truck of yours," he says. "Me, too," she says. Watching Redford and Spacek work together, hearing their simple dialog, draws attention to the outright silliness of most other movies.
Writer-director David Lowery makes the best of this allegedly true story, moving it along at a leisurely pace, giving us just enough wide open Texas scenery. Though he can't produce a satisfactory ending, there are enough gems along the way that we'll forgive him.
My favorite scene involved Casey Affleck as John Hunt, the cop on Tucker's trail. Tucker meets him, quite accidentally, in the men's room of a Texas diner. Tucker knows who he is. He taunts him a little, tells him to straighten his tie. Hunt knows its Tucker. As Tucker teases him, Hunt can't help but smile at the old codger's audacity. It's as good a movie moment as we'll see this year.