From the moment Robert Redford announced The Old Man and the Gun would be his final film role, the skeptics have been out in force. Sure, Redford is 82. Maybe he doesn’t want to act right up until almost literally the day he dies like his old Butch Cassidy and The Sting co-star Paul Newman did. But, can he really stay away? Plus, look around. Actors of Reford’s caliber hardly ever actually retire anymore. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin have their own Netflix series. Morgan Freeman’s roughly the same age and he’s averaging 2 new movies a year these days. Clint Eastwood’s 5 years older and he’s acting on-screen again in The Mule. Dick Van Dyke didn’t let being 92-years-old stop him from dancing in the new Mary Poppins movie. Betty White, of course, will outlive us all (and how dare you suggest otherwise!).
So, Redford says this is it? Cool. See you again in a couple of years. Or so the cynic would say.
Redford now wishes he’d never even mentioned retirement. The day after the film’s premiere, he told The New York Times, “I can’t remember how it came up, but I said something about retirement. And what I really should have done is just not said anything about it and slipped quietly away out of the mainstream into a new category.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s already unretiring; it’s more he regrets the way this conversation now follows The Old Man and the Gun around. Can’t we just talk about the movie and accept or reject it for what it is and not turn it into an opportunity to write an obit for Redford’s career?
That’d be a lot easier to do if The Old Man and the Gun didn’t so consistently revolve around the question of whether the titular old man can ever quit doing the only thing he truly loves. Granted, in the film that “one thing” is robbing banks, but it plays quite a bit like Redford choosing this role to grapple with his own debate over whether to retire from acting.
Loosely based on a New Yorker article detailing the improbable exploits of a geriatric band of bank robbers in the early 1980s, The Old Man and the Gun focuses on Forrest Tucker (Redford, playing it like an older version of his Sting character) and his quest for one last big score. Partnering with old buddies (Danny Glover and Tom Waits), he knocks off over 70 banks, mostly small ones, throughout the Midwest all without ever having to fire his gun.
His secret weapon: he’s old enough that no one ever perceives him as a threat or takes much notice of him at all, and when they do notice him they can’t get over how charming he is. Next thing they know, he’s showing them a gun in his coat pocket and politely, but firmly asking for all the money behind the counter. In one memorable sequence, he robs a poor teller on her first day on the job and is so charming and complimentary of her work that he leaves her with a smile on her face.
This, naturally, turns into a bit of a media sensation and becomes the obsession of a Dallas-area cop (Casey Affleck) who was the first to notice their crime spree. Meanwhile, Tucker befriends a lonely widow (Sissy Spacek) who has a big house and farm and a wide open heart. Can Tucker find love late in life and happiness away from the only thing he’s ever been good it? If so, will he do it before Affleck and the feds throw him in jail?
This makes for a rather lovely if a tad too leisurely paced little film about an old man refusing to learn new tricks. Try as he might, Robert Redford’s character just can’t turn away from his true passion of robbing banks. It works as an obvious metaphor for Redford’s devotion to acting.
The other side of the movie involving Affleck as a newly 40-year-old cop who battles through midlife depression and finds a new lease on life through working the case is far less compelling, but it adds to what is a perfectly respectable final film in Redford’s illustrious career, that is if he truly can walk away. Much like his character in the movie, he might not be able to stay away for long. If this it, at least he goes out making us smile.