David Lowery’s last movie, A Ghost Story, was about a ghost but wasn’t a horror film. His new one, The Old Man & the Gun, is about a career bank robber but isn’t a heist thriller. Lowery keeps you on your toes if you’re a judge-a-movie-by-its-title kind of person, and he upends expectations once you’re in the theater, too.
“This story, also, is mostly true,” reads the title at the beginning, as if we’ve just joined a folksy storyteller mid-session. Robert Redford — whose last major film, All Is Lost, could have been called The Old Man and the Sea — is our old man with the gun, a septuagenarian bank robber who calls himself Bob but is really Forrest Tucker (but not the Forrest Tucker who was an actor). It’s 1981, and “Bob” and his buddies Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits) have been amblin’ around the American Southwest holdin’ up banks, using wigs and mustaches to obscure their already easy-to-overlook appearances. (Who pays attention to old men in a bank?) There’s never any violence, and Forrest is always described by witnesses as polite, gentlemanly, and happy.
Home again in the Dallas area, Forrest meets Jewel (Sissy Spacek), an effervescent widow who lives out in the country with her three horses. Forrest tells her he’s a traveling salesman, then is so quickly disarmed by her charm that he confesses he’s a bank robber before immediately backtracking and calling it a joke.
Meanwhile, a Dallas cop, 40-year-old family man John Hunt (Casey Affleck), happens to have been present for one of the group’s recent robberies and takes an interest in the case. It is he who discovers that there’s been a series of bank holdups perpetrated by old guys, a fact that the news media reports with more amusement than alarm, calling them the “Over-the-Hill Gang” and commenting on how one hopes Det. Hunt catches up with them before the Grim Reaper does. Forrest, seeing the coverage on TV, is delighted to at last have someone pursuing him.
You get the sense that this is all just for fun. Neither Forrest nor his cohorts has any apparent need for cash, nor do they spend it frivolously. (Forrest wants to use some to surreptitiously pay off Jewel’s mortgage.) Lowery, adapting a magazine article by David Grann, certainly doesn’t treat them like hardened criminals. He’s not interested in making a “heist” movie, either. Most of the gang’s jobs are the simple kind requiring almost no planning, and the one time there’s an exception, Lowery skips over the Ocean’s 11 stuff. Flashbacks to Forrest’s earlier days as an outlaw are nostalgic and joyful. When there’s finally a car chase, Lowery sets it to Jackson C. Frank’s contemplative 1965 guitar ballad “Blues Run the Game.” Lowery seems to have made the movie for the same reason Forrest Tucker robbed banks: He just liked it, that’s all.
Danny Glover and Tom Waits aren’t given much to do, which is a shame, but they make the most of what they have. Affleck’s police detective is the low-stakes, Casey Affleck version of a hard-boiled cop with a grudge, amusingly determined to get his man but not, like, losing sleep over it. (The robberies are all so pleasant and practically victim-less, you know?) And it is a joy to see Sissy Spacek doing anything, but in particular to see her being feisty with Robert Redford, playing the woman who might be able to tame his wild ways. If anyone can, it’s her.
This isn’t the first time Robert Redford has played a bank robber, of course, but it may be the last — he’s been talking about retiring. If he does, this will be a fitting bookend to his 60-year career, a smiling swan song with gentle reminders of some of his past work. When Forrest tells Jewel he’s never ridden a horse, we assume he’s lying — not because Forrest is untruthful but because Forrest, besides being Forrest, is also Robert Redford. This role didn’t HAVE to be played by a veteran movie star at the end of his career, but the casting adds a very satisfying dimension to an already humorous, amiable story.