Movie Review – The Old Man & the Gun
Forrest Tucker was a career criminal who has been in and out of prison since the age 15. He committed various crimes, including car theft, but he was mostly known for his bank robberies. He was arrested multiple times, but he reportedly escaped from prison 18 times. He famously escaped from San Quentin State Prison in 1979 when he was in his 50’s. He was married three times and had two kids who didn’t know he was a criminal. He eventually died in prison at the age of 83 after being arrested for bank robberies while still living at his retirement home. Written and directed by David Lowery (A Ghost Story and Pete’s Dragon), this film follows Tucker in 1981, after his San Quentin escape and right before the take-down of his “Over-the-Hill Gang,” which included Tucker and two other men in their 60’s or 70’s robbing banks.
This is not the first film to depict elderly criminals. Going in Style (2017) was about critiquing the banking system and the corruption therein. Stand Up Guys (2013) was about friendship and loyalty in the context of senior-citizen mobsters. Tough Guys (1986) was more about ageism and culture shifts from one generation to another. In a lot of ways, those movies were also about the personalities of the actors involved. This film is similarly so, but it might in fact be more about the personality of the main actor than anything else. Otherwise, it’s just about a man who enjoys or derives pleasure from committing the specific acts of bank robbery and prison escape. In that, Lowery is glamorizing or romanticizing this criminal. If that’s Lowery’s aim, he certainly picked the perfect movie star.
Robert Redford is an Oscar-winning filmmaker and actor who has had a long and diverse career, but his two most successful roles were as criminals. He played the second, titular character in the hit film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). He teamed up with Paul Newman again in The Sting (1973), which would become the biggest Redford movie in the box office in which Redford was the lead. In both films, Redford embodied criminal characters in which it was basically how great or romantic those criminals were.
This isn’t new. Plenty of films going back to the beginning of Hollywood and movie-making have been about glamorizing or romanticizing criminals. Ocean’s 11 (1960) and its various remakes and sequels are prime examples. In fact, there is a whole genre in cinema called “heist films” that goes all the way back to The Great Train Robbery (1903), which was inspired by the crimes of Butch Cassidy, the same inspiration for Redford’s 1969, signature movie. One reason to do it is for the spectacle or the curiosity because it’s unique in some fashion. In the case of Tucker, the crimes aren’t unique, but the number of times he committed them over the course of his life makes him a spectacle or curiosity for sure.
Based on an article by David Grann in The New Yorker magazine, the crimes and even the number here aren’t remarkable or particularly exciting, other than the fact that they were perpetrated in a gentlemanly way without anyone getting physically hurt with the exception of one time, and ironically, Lowery chooses not to depict that exception. We see what happens before the exception and the aftermath of it, but we never see what happens during that exception where someone gets hurt and in fact shot. The most exciting bank robbery in this movie is therefore completely overlooked.
What could be exciting and in fact becomes exciting are Tucker’s prison escapes. Lowery depicts those escapes in an intriguing montage, but it’s a montage that goes by so fast. We get glimpses of the dozen or so, prison escapes, but that’s it. The ingenuity or cleverness that Tucker displayed or even the ineptitude of the various prisons aren’t explored or delved. The boldness of them and some of the methods are passed as a joke, a humorous afterthought here.
This film is supposed to provide us some insight into Tucker as a character or person who is for some reason driven to do these things because it brings a smile to his face. There is no examination or interrogation as to why performing these particular crimes brings a smile to his face than anything else. He could be an adrenaline junkie that needs thrills, but why these particular thrills and not mountain climbing or NASCAR racing? Is it simply because he started crime at a young age and feels as though he can’t do anything else? We don’t really know. Redford’s character remains ever elusive.
One scene has Redford upon a horse in a glorious wide-shot with police cars in the background. It seems as though this film could simply be a nod to those infamous characters from Redford’s past like the Sundance Kid. In that, it’s less about understanding this particular character as it is just nostalgia for the kind of films and characters Redford used to play or that at least made him famous. The idea of nostalgia is underscored even more with how the movie was shot, utilizing actual celluloid, such as 16 mm stock, as well as the incorporation of footage from The Chase (1966), another Redford film where he played a criminal, but that film was about wrongful imprisonment and negative mob mentality. Beyond that nostalgia, I’d be hard-pressed to say what this film is really about.
Casey Affleck, a fellow Oscar-winner who has worked with Lowery in two previous films, A Ghost Story (2017) and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), co-stars as John Hunt, a detective in Dallas, who begins to investigate the Over-the-Hill gang and becomes somewhat pulled into a cat-and-mouse game with Tucker. That game is rather lame though. It’s perhaps supposed to be emblematic of the ennui that John feels upon the celebration of his 40th birthday and what seems like some frustration with his job in general. He’s possibly motivated due to being present for one of the robberies, which takes place under his nose, but, as the film progresses, it doesn’t feel like that’s an overwhelming motivation for him. He’s seemingly compelled by boredom more than anything else. If there were a more solid reckoning of that boredom, that could have been something, but Affleck’s a good enough actor that the boredom merely translates off screen, thus making me bored.
Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner’s Daughter and Carrie) is another fellow Oscar-winner here, and it’s through her that we get any life to this film. Her interactions with Redford’s character are the most enjoyable to watch or bask in. The only other woman in the cast is Tika Sumpter (Southside With You and Ride Along) who does a similar thing. She brings life to the scenes opposite Affleck, but we get more of an understanding or insight into who Spacek’s character of Jewel was. She is most likely an amalgamation, based on several of Tucker’s love interests, rather than a real person, but we still get more insight into her than we get into Tucker.
Redford is still a charming and attractive presence on screen. His chemistry with Spacek keeps the film afloat for the most part. Lowery’s film could have been this kind of late-in-their-age romance between these two people. It would have required more time with them and probably less with Affleck and Sumpter, but it perhaps would have been worth it to make me more invested, particularly to anything that happens in the third act. I’m not even sure I bought if Tucker loved her or not, yet it might have been the point that the true love of his life was crime.
Finally, it must be pointed out that John David Washington has a brief role in this film as the partner to Affleck’s character. John David is famously the son of Oscar-winner Denzel Washington. This marks the third film to get a wide release theatrically in which John David Washington plays someone who works for a police department. The other two were BlacKkKlansman and Monsters and Men.
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 33 mins.