At its core, “The Company You Keep” is a good, solid thriller about a fugitive trying to clear his name. But it’s a much more interesting movie at the edges.
Based on Neil Gordon’s 2003 novel about a former Weather Underground activist who has spent some 30 years in hiding after being implicated in a bank robbery that turned violent, the film follows a predictable path. Jim Grant (Robert Redford, who also directed) has been living under an assumed name and working as a respectable lawyer when a former colleague and fellow fugitive from his radical days (Susan Sarandon) is arrested by the FBI. Her apprehension, in which she looks like she wanted to get caught, piques the interest of a young newspaper reporter named Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), whose dogged snooping also flushes out Jim.
Jim, a widower with a young daughter (Jackie Evancho), is soon on the lam again.
But his behavior — handing off his daughter to his brother (Chris Cooper) before making a beeline for his old radical pals (Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins) — suggests to Ben that Jim thinks he’s innocent and is trying to find someone to exonerate him. That sounds like a story to Ben, but it also puts the journalist at odds with an FBI officer (Terrence Howard), who’s tired of his agency being made to look like chumps by a bunch of old hippies.
The chase — part police manhunt, part shoe-leather reporting — forms the spine of the story. It’s a pretty gripping one, with secrets, a twist and an only slightly silly ending. The performances are uniformly fine, and Redford’s direction keeps things taut and moving.
But there’s a far more intriguing film in the shadows of the story.
Screenwriter Lem Dobbs, who worked with Steven Soderbergh on “Haywire,” “The Limey” and “Kafka,” has fashioned a script that’s propulsive, while allowing for plenty of breathing room. The themes of aging, atonement and the death of idealism alone add layers of complexity and richness to the tale. But on top of that, Dobbs digs deeply into the question of terrorism and its definition. What’s the difference between the Weather Underground and al-Qaeda? The film asks this through Ben, a character who wasn’t even born by the end of the Vietnam War — a war that some of Jim’s colleagues considered itself a form of terrorism.
“The Company You Keep” looks at the notion of morality — both the shifting, relativistic kind and the more inflexible variety — from more than one angle, and without obvious judgment. It has a story to tell, not an ax to grind.
It also features a splendid depiction of real, 21st-century journalism as practiced on the ground: crippled, idealistic and more than slightly desperate. Stanley Tucci is great as Ben’s beleaguered editor.
In the end, there’s a love story at the heart of “Company.” In fact, there’s more than one. It offers no apologies for the old act of violence that precipitates its action, but it holds a deep affection for the gray areas of dissension, debate and disillusionment that sometimes leave blood on the floor.
R. At area theaters. Contains obscenity, drug references and brief violence. 125 minutes.