A month or so before THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN was released, its star Robert Redford announced that this would be his last role in front of the camera. The 82-year-old would still be open to directing and producing films, but he’d no longer act. Redford has been a superstar since 1969 when he and Paul Newman starred together in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. How fitting that in his final starring role on the big screen, he’s playing another charming bandit with a gun.
THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN is indeed a modern western in its way, albeit one that takes place in the 80’s and 90’s. It is based on the true story of career criminal Forrest Tucker, a bank robber first imprisoned for larceny in 1935 when he was just 15. For the next 69 years, until his death at 83 in 2004, Tucker was in and out of jail over 30 times. He may have spent a majority of the best years of his life behind bars, but he never turned into a hardened criminal. Instead, the veteran criminal had a carefree, breezy spirit, enjoying robbing banks with little more than his smile, kind manner, and suggested threat of a gun in his coat pocket. He lived off of his spoils, albeit never too extravagantly, and he even married three times and had two children. Tucker was so good at keeping his robberies hidden away from the rest of his life that none of his wives knew of his criminal behavior until they were informed by the police after his arrests.
Such a charming rogue is tailor-made for Redford, who’s always brought a relaxed devil-may-care quality to most of his screen roles. As he aged and slowed down some, he became even more laidback, and he fits Tucker like a hand in a stolen glove. Filmmaker David Lowery understands that and the tone of the film he wrote and directed here matches Redford’s style. The film is a lighthearted comedy, never too dramatic or too intense, and it seems to mostly laugh at how smoothly Tucker glides through it all, getting away with it and learning little from his transgressions. Lowery wants us to laugh too, and we certainly do.
Tucker even quietly boasts about his ‘profession’ when he picks up a senior motorist named Jewel (Sissy Spacek, as sweet and down-to-earth as she’s ever been onscreen). He stops his car on the highway next to her broken down vehicle, and she thinks he is acting “The Good Samaritan.” What’s he really doing is hiding in plain sight from the cops who were chasing him after he committed yet another robbery. When Tucker invites Jewel to join him for coffee at a local diner, he all but confesses his life of crime to her. She laughs, thinking that this old timer must be talking through his hat. (It’s actually a battered brown Fedora which gives the old man even more of a cowboy appearance.)
The two senior citizens start a courtship, with Tucker acting the constant gentleman, and it’s not a ruse. He genuinely feels for her, and she likes him back just as much. In many ways, this film is all about stealing, even in its B story. Tucker takes money from banks and a precious Jewel in his downtime. He steals ours too.
Redford may be 82, but he looks at least a decade younger. He’s still fit, focused, and sounds virtually the same as he always did. He’s craggier, sure, and the lines on his face give away too many horse rides in the Colorado winter, but his hair still is boyish as it flops over onto his forehead. (Where’s Barbra Streisand to brush it back when you need her?)
Assisting Tucker in his criminal adventures are aging colleagues Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits). Not surprisingly, Teddy is getting too old for this shit, and taking a bullet in his side during one bank getaway is there to prove it. Waller, on the other hand, has turned into a continually complaining ‘grumpy old man.’ Tucker manages to keep them together and prosperous with his positive attitude and carefully constructed heists that lower their risks. He expertly cases each bank, virtually walking in and out in mere minutes, with no one the wiser to the fact that the bank is being robbed.
The only one who’s onto them is Detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck). Hunt is an eagle-eyed cop, and he picks up a pattern in the crimes of Tucker’s locations and soon puts the pieces of the puzzle together. Even so, while working doggedly to stop the crimes, Hunt manages to work up an admiration for his opponent. Tucker likes him too and appreciates the attention. And it’s not like he hasn’t been caught before, right?
Casting Affleck in the role is one of Lowery’s clever little coups as you couldn’t imagine a more low-key actor playing opposite the always understated Redford. Eventually, Hunt’s pursuit will catch up with Tucker, and the gig will be up when Jewel’s home is visited by the cops. Still, throughout it all, we root for Tucker. We’re not going to cheer for the banks ever. And having Redford in the role, well, it conjures up the sympathy that many still have for Sundance getting gunned down at the end of that 1969 classic.
When THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN ends, don’t be surprised if there are tears in your eyes. It’s sad to think that Tucker’s reign did eventually end. Even more despairing is the realization that this is probably the last time one of cinema’s most celebrated screen presence will walk in front of a movie camera. We’ll just have to satiate ourselves with his brilliant canon, including such high-water marks as THE CANDIDATE, JEREMIAH JOHNSON, THE STING, THE WAY WE WERE, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, THE NATURAL, OUT OF AFRICA, SNEAKERS, INDECENT PROPOSAL and ALL IS LOST. (Just to name a dozen.) If this is indeed it for Redford, the man has picked a fitting finale that showed off his cleverness and cool. I hope he’ll return, but if he doesn’t, this small treasure will become another one to savor over and over again.