The Old Man & the Gun
Edwin Arnaudin: I’m starting to doubt that David Lowery and I will ever get on the same cinematic wavelength. The prolific filmmaker has made four features in the last five years, and while there’s a lot to admire technically and sometimes dramatically and narratively about Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story, and now The Old Man & the Gun, each one has left me feeling like a grand opportunity was missed. What’s your experience with his oeuvre?
Bruce Steele: I haven't seen Bodies, perhaps his best-reviewed film, but the contrasts between his other films suggest a highly adaptable filmmaker. Dare I say, a director for hire? Pete's Dragon was an attempt to launch a Disney franchise, while A Ghost Story was a zero-budget personal essay. Now The Old Man & the Gun, produced by its star, Robert Redford, takes a true story and strips it down to what I can only imagine are Redford's chief interests. I'm guessing his interests didn't much interest you.
Edwin: I was more than willing to take this pseudo Redford retrospective and got frequent delight from watching his charming bank robber Forrest Tucker, at least until Lowery gets in the way.
Bruce: It's definitely a Redford retrospective, including countless photos of younger Bob (I mean, Forrest) and even clips from The Chase, Redford's 1966 prison escape yarn. Were you not intrigued?
Edwin: Initially, sure. I’ve been interested in the writer/director's subject matter from film to film — other than a knee-jerk “The hell do we need a new Pete’s Dragon?” reaction — and the same is true here. It’s his execution, however, that leaves me wanting — one of appealing players, scenarios, and scenes, bogged down by a lack of character development but also stretches that unimaginatively attempt to sketch in his leads. I left feeling like I knew nothing about anyone besides Tucker, but maybe that was the point?
Bruce: I doubt Lowery intended to leave us in the dark about Jewel (Sissy Spacek), the widow with a horse farm Tucker woos, or John Hunt (Casey Affleck), the local cop who pursues him, or even Tucker's sometimes accomplices, Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits). But since none of these people bears much resemblance to the actual people on which they were based, it was up to Lowery (as the screenwriter) to fill in the absent facts with rich fabrications. Keeping everyone shadowy keeps the focus not on Tucker but on Redford, who's essentially playing himself: the elderly guy who's still in great shape, loves his job and can't seem to quit. Maybe he heard that Tucker's crew was dubbed the Over the Hill Gang and thought it was a good coda for the Sundance Kid.
Edwin: Or he was pissed off at not getting an Oscar nomination for the dreadful All Is Lost — of which I know you’re a fan — and was able to wear down his Pete’s director into giving him a…less boring vehicle to achieve those ends. And I think he’s good here, and as warm and gentlemanly to viewers as he is to the numerous bank managers and tellers he nonviolently convinces to hand over suitcase after suitcase of cash. If he wasn’t, The Old Man & the Gun would be akin to a feature-length version of Rooney Mara’s pie-eating scene from A Ghost Story, and nobody wants to see that.
Bruce: I didn't want to see it the first time around. The Old Man & the Gun isn't much of an Oscar vehicle, though. It's not quite a whimper, but it's not a bang. It's just a slow, graceful exit — a tip of the hat, as depicted on the poster, that will make fans smile but without tears of the happy or the sad variety. That's why I was fascinated to read the original New Yorker article that inspired the film and learn how all the grit of Tucker's life had been sanded away. If Redford wanted a grand finale, Lowery could have given him a nasty side, or a tortured soul, beneath the jovial surface. Or do you think that kind of complexity is beyond the writer-director's skill set?
Edwin: Easy as it is to rag on A Ghost Story, once its structure and ultimate purpose become clear, it produces a mature, soulful cumulative effect. Getting to that point is where Lowery frequently loses me, and it’s the same here just about any time Tucker has an extended conversation. It’s in the action of his films where I think Lowery is most impactful and gets across perhaps more character development and emotions that he realizes. Then he goes and hampers his progress with extraneous chitchat. Like many of today’s filmmakers in their 20s and 30s (Lowery turns 38 on Boxing Day), maybe he needs some behind-the-scenes collaborators to help hone his gifts.
Bruce: It's the rare filmmaker who cannot benefit from collaboration, and I agree that The Old Man & the Gun could have benefited from input by someone who wasn't Redford or Lowery. I wasn't as put off by the conversations as you were — the first Redford-Spacek meeting is nice, they have one or two more nice talks, and Waits has perhaps the best mini monologue in a scene with Redford and Glover. The Waits bit, though, highights the general lack of self-reflection by the main characters, including Affleck's unhappy copper. This is a good cast, and they all fit their roles nicely, so it didn't strike me as a grievous fault so much as a missed opportunity. I still think fans of the cast will be happy they saw the movie.
Edwin: If it sounds like I hated the movie, I didn’t. The heists (mild though they may be) are exciting, moments like the montage of Tucker’s numerous prison escapes show how good Lowery can be when he’s not writing dialogue, and the desire to see our guy remain a few steps in front of the law is generally enough to sustain viewer interest. I just wish it added up to more than, “OK, that was fine,” and a corresponding B-minus grade.
Bruce: I found it a hair better than fine, but was hoping for warm and wonderful. I did like the heists and escapes you highlight, and the pairing of Redford and Spacek is pleasing. There are a few fine comic chases that stand out as well, underscoring your point about the director's action skills. It doesn't add up to the career capper we might have hoped for, but I'll give it a solid B.
Grade: B. Rated PG-13. Now playing at Carolina Cinemark and the Fine Arts Theatre
(Photos: Fox Searchlight)