The Old Man and the Gun is shot on a very creamy stock of 16mm film. It makes everything in this film look soft. When Robert Redford ambles into the frame with a crooked smile and a gimlet eye, the air around him crackles. He is a very kindly man who also so happens to be a bank robber. I’ve no doubt that this work is a tremendous example of historical revisionism — there ain’t a single person alive who exhibits the genuine unfiltered kindness that the people here do. Even the weary, downtrodden, cop tired of his job and the cruelty he sees in the world — working to take the criminals down — exhibits it earnestly.
This is the kinda world that only exists in dreams. One in which everyone’s place is certain and there is distinct comfort to be found in fulfilling their role. Rather than being ground down by life, life warps slightly — gives everyone a comfortable groove to inhabit. Maybe the real world would be better off without criminals, but in this one they make up part of the necessary fabric of life. What would existence be without a little excitement, and who better to provide drama?
Early on we have a scene of a bank heist, it is executed in these scoundrels’ typical low key way, a quiet discussion with a manager, an implicit threat, a bag discreetly being filled behind the tellers. Director David Lowery shoots it in a measured fashion, the camera lingers back from the action because we are witnessing it alongside a father and daughter waiting in line. The scene is soundtracked with their banal conversation, unaware of what is actually taking place until the gang leave and they learn that their past few minutes were far more interesting than they had realised.
Maybe that’s what’s so seductive about the whole thing, a life lived in arrears. Knowing that the greatest definition you bring into the world is through absence. This is reported to be Robert Redford’s final film role.
Early on he meets a woman named Jewel at the side of the road, she’s played by Sissy Spacek and they fall in love. Between jobs he’ll spend time with her, relaxing at a diner, on their porch, at her paddock. They trade stories and life observations and although he’s been quite frank about his profession she doesn’t really believe him. Maybe in another version of this story this could be a source of conflict but, as far as we’re concerned these two people have lived contented lives. What we see now is extra, and they seem comfortable enough.
I’ll admit that I started smiling somewhere around the first scene and within the first kinda ten minutes had clasped my hands together and started giggling. So winning is the joint’s irrepressible, ineffable niceness. You can sense the points sometimes that it’s instincts half play against itself. A moment where a woman he’s threatening starts to cry and he kindly asks her to stop feels like it’s approached with a very masculine gaze, a woman behind the director’s chair would have handled that very differently.
So too would the ultimate revelation of Redford’s character’s identity. Delivered in the form of a wonderful single scene performance by the great Elizabeth Moss who recounts her youth spent with him as a mostly absent father, wondering what drew her mother towards such a man. The film shies from the painful experiences of these women, their emotions are too fragile, too raw. To fully reckon with what they mean might cause the feature to collapse like the delicate souffle that it is.
Compare that to the times men are allowed to monologue. There’s a lot of good speechifying in this film actually, but the men never seem contained by their suffering in the same way. Tom Waits, — who along with Danny Glover comprises the misfit trio of scoundrels — talks at length about his father, the lawyer who defended them multiple times talks about their prior record. This might be the most ASMR movie ever made, I’m not sure anyone raises their voice above conversation level and they all have such rich honeyed tones.
It’s a nostalgia piece sure, but the existence of the singular mythical figure of Redford as a focus on stops it from feeling as shallow as the rest of them. More than anything it seems to want to give the man a good deserving sendoff, something that’s kinda pensive and in every scene lets the weight of time hang heavy. Lulling you into something close to tranquillity.
People generally use the descriptor ‘inoffensive’ as like some sorta backhanded compliment. That’s not the case here. It’s one of the most inoffensive films of the year and one of my favourites.
The Old Man and the Gun is currently screening in UK cinemas.
Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight