By now, I think we can say David Lowery’s ideal vision of cinema is one that takes its time to form in the viewer’s imagination. With a little patience, and with a little luck, people will get onboard, as I did with The Old Man & the Gun. Advertised as Robert Redford’s final farewell (though later he sort of backtracked), it’s the tale of a genial geriatric with a winning smile named Forrest Tucker who spends his time calmly robbing banks. He only needs to show his gun (or, perhaps, the idea of a gun) and treat his “victims” kindly, and time after time, he walks out the door with a suitcase brimming with banknotes. At the very start of the picture, he meets ranch owner Jewel (Sissy Spacek) when she has car troubles on the side of a road. The two instantly connect, though Forrest is careful not to let her know too much about his so-called profession. On one spree, Forrest robs the same bank where a police detective (Casey Affleck) is making a transaction. On the brink of a midlife crisis, Detective John Hunt finds a renewed sense of purpose when he begins hunting for Forrest and his accomplices, and the two begin playing a careful game of cat and mouse. It’s hard not to cheer on Forrest, though. You can’t help but admire the fox.
Much like how Forrest plays with the law, Lowery’s approach is fun in a low key. We open the film, for instance, with a title card that tells us the story we’re about to see is “mostly” true in the same font used in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Much of the chronology here is relayed through similar intertitles that are timed and dated to the dot, and transitions are marked with frequent camera spins. Daniel Hart’s score is also breezily jazzy, tinkling with a hidden sense of mischief. In general, it’s not a film that drowns itself in sadness or much self-seriousness, and it fits the Robert Redford we’ve come to know through the decades. It is a gentlemanly swansong, and you can picture Lowery doffing his hat to the legend with each artistic choice he makes.
There is also the great Sissy Spacek in one of her finest late-career roles to date. Spacek remains a treasure to our world and the screen, anchoring her scenes with an iridescent command of her character’s history and desires. In one late scene, she silently begins to boil a kettle after a night out with Forrest, having just discovered that he may be the career criminal he initially joked about being. Spacek fills the dark space with turmoil raging within her, caught between loving a gentleman and loving a felon, not knowing in the moment what she wants to do about it. A few seconds earlier, he has bid her goodnight with a tender kiss. Spacek sits at her table and stares out her window, waiting for an answer that she alone must find. It is a simple moment of grace, done with little fanfare, but done with gravity that only someone like Spacek knows how to bring. It is a scene like this, as well as others in which she does nothing more than casually converse, that reveal the extent of her greatness as one of her generation’s most talented thespians.
The Old Man & the Gun is more like an afternoon repast than a three-course meal—more sweet than savoury. That does not take away from its simple pleasures, and the warmth it provides on a sunless day. Treat it like secret medicine, and its gifts will unfurl like a warm role of greenbacks.