By Eleanor Ringel Cater
One measure of the affection (and, yes, lust) that has accrued to Robert Redford over his decades in movies is, when he walks into a bank in “The Old Man and the Gun,” we reflexively wonder, is he “walking” like an old man or does he, at 82, now walk like an old man?
Actually, in keeping with the delicacy of the acting ego, Redford is playing younger than his age. Forrest Tucker, the true-life bank robber he portrays, was a mere 74 in 1981, when the movie is set. But much like Bonnie and Clyde, his predecessors in the Depression ‘30s, Tucker defined himself by what he did. He robbed banks. And despite being incarcerated 16 times, that’s what he still did till the day he died.
“The Old Man and the Gun” doesn’t take us that far. Rather it concentrates on his last few heists and his relationship with Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a comely widow. They “meet cute” in a clever way. Tucker’s just pulled another job and as he drives away, he spies a pretty woman with a broken-down truck by the side of the road. Pulling over, he chivalrously offers to help.
Does he know anything about engines, Jewel asks. No, he says, but putting his head under her hood is a convenient way to hide from the phalanx of police cars that are in hot pursuit.
Of course, he doesn’t tell her that. In fact, he doesn’t tell her what he really does at first. But as they grow closer, he eventually admits the truth and even gives her a taste of the thrill of larceny at a local mall.
Redford and Spacek are wonderful together which is a good thing because this old-coot Jean Valjean lacks a proper Javert. The cop intent on catching him is played with recessive energy and a Burt Reynolds moustache by Casey Affleck.
A fine actor capable of intriguing audiences in movies as disparate as “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford” and “Manchester By the Sea” (for which he won a well-deserved Oscar), Affleck is a total wash-out here. It’s a muted, disconnected performance that gives Redford almost nothing to play against.
But then, we’ve long ago learned that Redford could make watching paint dry somehow charming. He’s more than a mere movie- star presence; he’s a truly expert actor who understands everything from the comic beats in a scene to the inchoate romanticism of mythmaking.
Tucker may be just an old man with a gun (invariably described by his victims as “a gentleman” and “a nice guy”), but in Redford’s hands, he also embodies a particularly American combination; he’s simultaneously courtly and raffish.
Think of it this way: If the Sundance Kid had somehow survived that hail of gunfire in South America (kids: please see “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”), he might’ve ended up back here, doing what he and Bonnie and Clyde and Forrest Tucker loved so well: robbing banks.