It’s not a spoiler, exactly, when a title card characterizing the story to come as “mostly true” appears at the beginning of The Old Man and the Gun, writer-director David Lowery’s thoughtful and curiously gentle thriller about a gang of superannuated bank robbers and the Texas cop bent on catching them. The basic facts of the life of Forrest Tucker, the serene stickup artist played by an incandescently charming Robert Redford, were public knowledge even before David Grann published a long profile of Tucker in the New Yorker in 2003, his very first piece for that magazine. But by time you reach the end of this improbable tale, the simple realization that, yes, something like these events actually transpired has the impact of a punchline. You walk out of this uneven but soulful movie with a smile on your face, maybe because that’s the default expression of Forrest Tucker, a man who practices grand theft with the stubborn passion of an aged master painter unwilling to put down his brush.
The fact that Redford himself may be ready to relinquish one of his artist’s tools—he’s said that this may be his last on-screen appearance, though of course his role in the film industry extends far beyond acting—adds an extra gloss of nostalgia to an already retro-styled movie. Watching each ever-proliferating “one last job” in The Old Man and the Gun, we’re watching an allegory for the star’s own Hollywood swan song; he and his director both know it, and they know we know it. But this metatextual dimension never makes the story itself seem facetious or inauthentic, as if Tucker’s life were being mined for its meaning in relation to Redford’s. Though it’s full of nods to the star’s cinematic past—including at least one clip from an old Redford film edited in as a flashback to Tucker’s ill-spent youth—The Old Man and the Gun is as old-fashioned and sincere, as temperamentally un-postmodern, as it’s possible for a movie to be.
Not only has Lowery not gussied up the original story for the purposes of his screenplay, if anything he’s played down his hero’s real-life flamboyance. As Grann describes him, Tucker often sported flashy accessories like shiny white ascots, played the saxophone, and spoke with a drawling Southern accent. Redford’s version makes no attempt to approximate these quirks. His performance is blessedly affectation-free (even if a chance to see him blow the sax wouldn’t have gone amiss). His Forrest speaks in a regionally neutral voice that seems to suit his itinerant motel-room lifestyle and wears a modest if jaunty uniform of dark three-piece suits and a battered brown fedora, making him look only slightly anachronistic for his time (the bulk of the movie takes place in 1981).
When holding up a bank—something we see him do in the movie’s first two minutes and many times thereafter—Forrest is polite, even pleasant, as he discreetly shows, or sometimes just hints at the presence of, the pistol inside his suit jacket. On the run from that first holdup (our first, not his by a long shot), he stops to help a woman having trouble with her pickup truck—in part out of courtesy, in part for the elegant alibi it provides.
That woman, Jewel (Sissy Spacek), turns out to be an independent-minded widow who lives on her own horse ranch outside Dallas. Forrest begins to court her, dashingly but noncommittally, concealing the truth about his chosen profession but sometimes dropping hints that he might not be 100 percent on the level. Bemused by this mysterious suitor who’s come into her life, Jewel decides to take him at his word that he’s a traveling salesman, and over the course of a year, they pursue their romance between his trips through the South and West, often in the company of his bank-robbing crewmates Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits).
Back in Dallas, John Hunt (Casey Affleck), a relatively unambitious local cop, finds himself caught up in Tucker’s case after he and his small son are witnesses to a bank holdup. As the trio of seniors soon known around the department as the “Over-the-Hill Gang” continues to elude his grasp, Hunt becomes more and more preoccupied—but also more and more identified—with the mythic figure of Forrest Tucker, who is not only an adept criminal but a singularly successful prison escapee, having broken out of captivity more than a dozen times in his long life. (We learn this history via a stylish montage of creative escapes that includes that clip of young Redford in the wild.)
Lowery’s previous features include the lyrical sort-of Western Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (which I didn’t love) and last year’s philosophical fable A Ghost Story (which made my 10-best list last year). The Old Man and the Gun shares both those films’ keen sense of place and eye for well-observed detail, from the old boat of a car Forrest drives, to the diner where he and Jewel order pie. But it’s lighter and more playful than either (though I can’t be the only one who found A Ghost Story funny: The hero was a sheet with two eyeholes!). The crime plot here matters less than the characters and mood: Lowery is interested in observing the nuanced flirtation between Forrest and Jewel, or laying a warm, jazzy score (by Daniel Hart) under the wanderings of the Over-the-Hill Gang through the back roads of the Southwest (at one point Jewel and Forrest go to see the movie Two-Lane Blacktop, Monte Hellman’s 1971 paean to the existential pull of the wide-open American highway).
At times Lowery’s directorial touch in The Old Man and the Gun is almost too light, his storytelling so delicate it feels insubstantial. It’s a relief not to be waiting on tenterhooks, as in most thrillers, for the next scene of bone-crunching violence. But there are darker elements to Tucker’s story that are elided in this telling. (I’ll let you read Grann’s reporting, or this magazine’s article on the differences between the real and movie versions, to find out which.) Even setting questions of artistic license aside, there are parts of the story as presented that seem to beg for further exploration. After a few well-written scenes establishing Glover’s and Waits’ supporting characters—as the perennially cranky Waller, Waits gets to rasp out a great shaggy-dog story about the history of his hatred of Christmas—both men drop out of the film entirely in the last third. And though Lowery makes a point of casting nonwhite actors in key roles—Hunt’s wife, Maureen (Tika Sumpter), is black and they have two young mixed-race children—he has little interest in exploring the social reality of race relations in Texas in the early 1980s.
But the point of The Old Man and the Gun isn’t to interrogate complex social milieus. It’s to give viewers one last chance to watch one of our greatest living movie stars in a role suited to his particular brand of charisma, and on that front it delivers. Redford is slyly brilliant, mischievous and melancholy at once. He appears to be enjoying his last hours on screen as much as Tucker evidently loved robbing banks and escaping from prison. Playing the world’s most disarming armed robber is a fitting valediction for an actor who for 56 years—yes, Redford’s film debut was in 1962—has been stealing the audience’s heart.