The Old Man and the Gun is a second farewell to film for Robert Redford. His first farewell, All is Lost (2013), made occasionally heavy weather of allegory on the high seas — the lone American yachtsman, asleep in his cabin despite the storm warning of 2008, springs a leak when his boat collides with a Chinese shipping container. This time, Redford is back on American soil, and on familiar ground, as the geriatric bank robber Forrest Tucker. After an allegory about the old man and the sea, the myth of The Old Man and the Gun.
In Oklahoma in the early 1980s, Forrest meets the widowed Jewel (Sissy Spacek) when her car has broken down and his is being pursued by the police. With a dapper blue suit and a courteous manner, this gentleman of the road passes himself off as a travelling salesman. Forrest tells small lies, and Jewel know it, but they share a candid need for contact. The unfocused close-ups, apart from smoothing the crinkles, are those of romantic delusion, the lies they privately tell themselves. Each is the other’s alibi; for him in life, for her in love.
When the real Forrest turned professional bank robber in the late Forties, he posed, like Redford in The Sting, in the pinstriped suits and correspondent shoes of the Twenties’ gangster. While Jewel tries to inhabit the character of a retiree with three horses, Forrest inhabits the character of Robin Hood, aided by his more sinister but no less merry men, Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits). To the chagrin of John Hunt (Casey Affleck), the Dallas detective who is assigned to their trail, this Over-the-Hill Gang pull off dozens of armed robberies, leaving behind terrified bank tellers and a general impression of rickety politeness.
The real Forrest Tucker was an accomplished escape artist. A career thief, he broke out 16 times from prison, including from San Quentin in 1979 in a boat that he and an accomplice had secretly built in the prison’s furniture workshop. He was compelled to return to the scene of his crimes. This was also the stage on which he impersonated a hero, and on which the hero, rather than slowly dying in prison, might go out with a fanfare. Tucker kept trying until the age of 79 when, finding a retirement community in Florida insufficiently rewarding, he told his wife he was nipping out to the shops, and robbed four banks in an afternoon. He died in prison.
In the story of the unreal Forrest Tucker, all the proprieties of the bankrobber movie are observed with almost funereal reverence. The moments of respite, as when Butch and Sundance have fun with Katharine Ross and a bicycle. The casing of the joint, the doing of the job, and the getaway, the miniature three-act drama that Hollywood has taught us all to dream of pulling off. The sure sense that this kind of glory leads to the death of the outlaw. The droll sidekick, which Glover performed so generously for Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. The false romance with a violent man, a role in which Spacek excelled decades ago in Badlands. The constant lying, which Redford, always something of an emotional grifter, pulls off with charm. The implication, bolstered by Waits’s splendidly anecdotal performance, that bank robbery is to finance as rock’n’roll is to music. Or used to be, as when rock’n’roll used to matter.
This is an enjoyable but troubling film. It refers more to the outlaw myths of the frontier and Hollywood than to reality. The shadow of mortality over the Over-the-Hill Gang is that of Redford’s earlier service in the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. But, like the shadows on the wall of the cave in Plato’s allegory, the flickers on the screen foster a false impression of reality. Perhaps film should do nothing less; perhaps this is why Redford is so watchable, so generous with his falsity. But reality has altered since the late Sixties and early Seventies, when Hollywood revived the glamorisation of bank robbers as outlaws in Bonnie and Clyde and Butch and Sundance.
The lasting cinematic image of Redford remains the final frame of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: him and Paul Newman going down, guns blazing, and fading not to red, but sepia. Bank robbers know how it ends: prison or death. These days, white loners who want to go down all guns blazing take more than the money with them. Like the difference between the delusions of Jewel and those of Forrest, the moral register in which white misfits seek death or glory has slipped from harmless escapism to dangerous fantasy. I enjoyed The Old Man and the Gun for its romantic and reflective honouring of myths that were old before Redford was even born. But for the same reasons, it felt tired, like another Redford obituary for the heroic white misfit, and more than a little complacent. I wondered if the presence of black partners — Forrest’s sidekick Teddy, Hunt’s wife Maureen — reflected the historic reality, or had been added to pre-empt the thought that even in armed robbery, white men might have privileges over black men when it comes to being arrested.
The hearing aid that signals Forrest’s non-threatening frailty is actually an ear-piece for the police radio hidden in his jacket next to the gun that he flashes but is not shown to shoot. The Old Man and the Gun, though, is more than a little deaf to recent events, and not tuned in to contemporary concerns. But then, in our dreams an outlaw like Davy Crockett always has three ears: his left ear, his right ear, and his wild frontier.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.