After announcing that “The Old Man and the Gun” would be his final acting role, Robert Redford has backtracked, and watching the film makes one grateful for the change of heart. As Forrest Tucker, an elderly bank robber with a twinkle in his eye and larceny in his soul, Redford plays to all his still-formidable strengths: subtlety, effortless charisma and looks that, though craggier and more weathered, are still irresistible.
In fact, Redford’s inherent charms do so much of the work in “The Old Man and the Gun” that they obscure what a questionable character Forrest really is. Opening at a time when entitlement and privilege have never been more floridly expressed, here they are presented as benign, harmless and worth celebrating. Finally, an example of white male impunity we can root for!
Not that writer-director David Lowery is unaware of his protagonist’s problematic side: He makes sure to give the audience room for at least a few moments of ambivalence. But for the most part, this gentle, low-key ride-along — based on a New Yorker story about a real-life career criminal — is presented as an ode to freedom, mischief and staying young. As “The Old Man and the Gun” opens, Forrest is doing what he does best: presenting himself as a sweet old guy shuffling up to a young, female bank teller and quietly telling her to give him a satchel full of money, pointing to his inside jacket pocket as a wordless threat. It’s all very quiet and civilized, and when Forrest leads the police on a car chase, there are no squealing tires or pyrotechnics. In fact, he comes up with an ingenious feint that has the benefit of introducing him to Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a kindhearted ranch-woman with whom he embarks on a shy, teasingly endearing flirtation.
Jewel and Forrest’s dates — usually over pie and coffee — are some of the most satisfying sequences of “The Old Man and the Gun,” which lights up every time Spacek is on-screen. Her blushing, responsive performance brings a spark of spontaneity to a narrative that is understated to a fault. When a Dallas detective named John Hunt (Casey Affleck) decides to run Forrest to the ground, what ensues is less a game of cat-and-mouse than sloth-and-sea turtle. Scruffy and slurry, Hunt pursues Forrest from Texas to Missouri, piecing together the career of a criminal who’s motivated less by greed than pure vocation.
There isn’t much subtext to “The Old Man and the Gun”; Hunt is just turning 40, and even though he’s serious when it comes to snagging Forrest, the cop admires the way that stealing keeps his perp in the game. Lowery gives the enterprise a lovely retro sheen, from the grainy 16mm film stock he uses to a splendid, jazz-infused musical score by composer Daniel Hart (the story takes place in the early 1980s). Danny Glover and Tom Waits are on hand to play Forrest’s henchmen, who are every bit as adorable and unthreatening as he is. Waits has the film’s funniest lines, especially in the course of delivering a shaggy-dog story over drinks in a dimly lit bar.
A polemicist might have found room for Glover’s character to comment on the fact that only a man who looks like Forrest could get away with bank robbery in broad daylight, without eliciting a scintilla of suspicion. Or for Hunt’s African American wife to observe that, when Forrest is no doubt pulling his umpteenth heist in a few years, their young daughter will be followed by security guards every time she walks into a store at the mall. Lowery chooses to put zero spin on the ball, leaving it to viewers to do it themselves, as temperament dictates.
If the social politics are unspoken and the stakes agonizingly low in “The Old Man and the Gun,” Redford fans will be gratified by watching him play a gentleman thief in the tradition of David Niven and Cary Grant — and, come to think of it, himself. Lowery tips the referential hat whenever he can, using images from Redford’s old movies, including nods to “The Sting” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” among others. Indeed, “The Old Man and the Gun” ambles along with such unhurried, folksy ease that it’s easy to overlook the people — mostly women — Forrest leaves in his wake, victims who may not be physically scarred, but often look as if they will bear unseen injuries into the future nonetheless. Seen through yet another lens, that’s a testament to the protagonist’s manipulative skills, as well as to the disarmingly seductive gifts of the man who plays him: Sixty years into a varied and vigorous career, the kid’s still a natural.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains brief strong language. 93 minutes.