Writer-director David Lowery (A Ghost Story) cast Robert Redford in a solid supporting role in his ‘one for the studio’ for hire gig, the remake of Pete’s Dragon. Here, he gifts the long-time star with a perfect valedictory role – Redford has announced his retirement – in which the charismatic-down-to-the-bone 82-year-old plays a man in his seventies who is often taken to be much younger. Based on a true story, the film follows the later career of Forrest Tucker – not to be confused with the genial B actor of The Abominable Snowman and F Troop – who specialises in walking into small-ish banks, lifting his coat to show a holstered gun, then talking tellers or managers into handing over their cash … mitigating obvious menace with a courteous, calm, sometimes flirtateous line of chat that left his victims thinking of him as ‘sort of a gentleman’.
Set in 1981, it’s a rare period piece that doesn’t rely on fashions or music – the few well-chosen songs heard on the soundtrack are from different eras – but on tone and pace to establish the past. A trim, unhurried 93 minutes, this is as unshowy as Baby Driver is attention-getting – for a film full of armed robberies, chases, getaways and police dragnets, it’s unsensationalist, and Lowery (adapting a New Yorker article by David Grann) trusts his cast to live and breathe the story. Between heists, Forrest finds time to enter into a warm, loving relationship with widowed Jewel (Sissy Spacek), and there are scenes between the two vintage players in diners or on the porch of her ranch that have a range of nuance, charm and melancholy that is astonishingly gripping. As an actor, Redford has often been accused of coasting on his looks – the trailer mentions that he’s an Academy Award winner, but not that he got his Oscar for direction – but he shows his range in a complicated, sweet, yet genuinely tragic role. The robberies are so well-mannered as to be comic, but Lowery never forgets that many people who see the gun – the director never shows it in Forrest’s hand, but we know it’s there – are terrified of him, and a tiny moment when he is on the run and forced to carjack a mother and son shows that if charm doesn’t work for him he’ll still rely on brute force. On Forrest’s trail is John Hunt (Casey Affleck), a detective who happens to be in a bank telling his daughter a groaner joke while it’s being robbed – and, having just turned forty and suffering a bit of mid-life fatigue, connects the disparate hold-ups and works hard to identify Forrest and his associates Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits). The geriatric crooks are nicknamed the Over-the-Hill Gang in reference to a 1970s TV western, though we of course remember the Sundance Kid was in the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang – and there’s a sweet moment when Redford, once the Electric Horseman, gets back in the saddle.
Between the lines, we get a sense of the cost of Forrest’s outlaw status – Hunt first learns his name from a daughter (Elisabeth Moss) he probably doesn’t know exists (when Jewel asks him if he has kids he says ‘I hope not’), and the last reel admits that even when given the chance to settle down with Jewel in an idyllic life (they have what strikes me as the ideal senior date – going to a small-town theatre revival screening of Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop) the urge to return to crime will be overpowering. This is mutely contrasted with Hunt’s credible, chaotic home life with an African-American wife (Tika Sumpter) and two interracial kids (Ari Elizabeth Johnson, Teagan Johnson). Fed up as he may be by the bureaucracy of the law – especially when the FBI swoop in to take the case and the credit – Hunt goes home to love and purpose … whereas Forrest has a near-unfurnished home with a view of a cemetery – his friends ask him if this has any significance – and stashes of untouched, not-all-that-useful loot under the floorboards. Only late in the day is it mentioned that besides stick-ups, Forrest’s other great criminal talent is escaping from prisons – cuing a montage of his lifetime of breaking out and running away (including pointed use of a clip from The Chase). It’s funny and invigorating – but also shows that Forrest has done so much escape and evasion that he’s never been able to stay close to anyone in his life. Redford will probably get deserved awards traction for this, but his star work brings everyone up – Waits (following his great turn in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) is on great form (and has a splendid ‘and that’s why I hate Christmas’ speech) and Spacek is as luminous an old lady as she was a teenager.