Robert Redford has said that he’s retiring from acting. This makes “The Old Man & the Gun” doubly right as a finale. The rightness is both good and bad.
It’s good because so much of the movie is. “Old Man” is a wonderfully understated star vehicle. The film couldn’t have been more built around Redford if the real-life bank robber he plays were named Sundance or Hubbell, instead of Forrest Tucker. Director David Lowery (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” “A Ghost Story”) did the adaptation of David Grann’s New Yorker magazine article. His direction is winningly relaxed, and his script has real flavor.
We’re introduced to Tucker on the job, so to speak. It’s Texas in 1981. His modus operandi is to wear a three-piece suit and hearing aid, show a gun (but never use it), and be unfailingly polite. He also has two accomplices, whom we meet later. They’re played by Danny Glover and an uncharacteristically low-key Tom Waits. Escaping from that first robbery, Tucker meets a widow with car trouble. Her name is Jewel, and Sissy Spacek’s performance has a bijou-beauty charm. “I’m in sales,” he tells her. Tucker, we come to learn, treats the truth pretty much the way he does bank accounts.
Casey Affleck plays Tucker’s police-detective nemesis, doing so with stalwart weariness. He’s got a wife, a couple of kids, and the sort of disillusion that turning 40 can bring. Affleck shows how Tucker gets under the detective’s skin, and how one man’s compulsion to rob banks — which we see enacted on multiple occasions — inspires another’s compulsion to capture him. Affleck gives such a finely calibrated performance it’s only fair that he, not Redford, gets to give a nose-flick nod to “The Sting” (1973).
So with all this going for “Old Man,” what’s bad about its “rightness” as a Redford finale? As with so many of his movies, Redford is this amiable, knock-out-handsome man (yes, even at 82) whose amiability and handsomeness do the work of acting. When Affleck grimaces, we feel his character’s pain. When Redford does, it’s Redford’s facial muscles we notice. The greatest movie stars somehow manage to do an indescribable yet unmistakable something — and do that something while seeming not to do much of anything at all. Their being on screen is a kind of doing that extends outward. With Redford, being on screen is a kind of not doing much of anything. He’s easy to like, always has been. He’s also hard to engage with.
This poses such a problem because Forrest Tucker, who died in 2004, was a fascinatingly compulsive man — forget about all the banks he robbed, he escaped from jail or prison 16 times — and there’s as much compulsion conveyed by Redford’s performance as there is peanut brittle. That lack of compulsion makes the first two-thirds of the movie a consistent, happily undemanding pleasure — and the final third a maddening exercise in the absence of motivation. Those famous blue eyes have a crackle of wrinkling around them. They don’t have a glint. Forrest Tucker without a glint isn’t so much a puzzle as an impossibility.
THE OLD MAN & THE GUN
Written and directed by David Lowery, based on David Grann’s New Yorker article. Starring Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, Tom Waits. At Kendall Square and Coolidge Corner. 93 minutes. PG-13 (brief strong language)