The Old Man & the Gun

November 15, 2018
Robert Redford pulls another polite stick-up

There was an old man with a gun
Who spent his whole life on the run
His favourite prank
Was to hold up a bank
He said it was his kind of fun

If The Old Man & the Gun is the swansong of Robert Redford’s acting career he’s not going out with a bang but a raised eyebrow. Redford plays Forrest Tucker (1920-2004) bank robber and escapologist extraordinaire – a character so fantastic he can only be based on a real person.

The source for David Lowery’s film was an article by David Grann in a 2003 issue of The New Yorker, which told the story of a man who had been on the wrong side of the law since the age of 15, when he made his first successful gaol break. Seventeen further escapes would follow, including one from San Quentin in a kayak made from junk from the prison workshop.

When Grann tracked down Tucker the legendary thief was in his eighties, serving a 13-year sentence in Fort Worth. When we meet Tucker in this film he has just pulled off a successful bank robbery and his making his getaway, but the sight of a woman pulled over with car trouble prompts him to stop and offer assistance. As the patrol cars speed past, sirens blaring, Tucker strikes up a conversation with the woman, whose name is Jewel (Sissy Spacek).

It’s a brilliant opening, simultaneously thrilling and understated. In the first scenes we learn everything we need to know about Tucker, who is a lifelong criminal but also a consummate gentleman. His manners are so polished that even the bank staff whom he has just menaced with a gun describe him as “nice” and “polite”. Tucker is a true professional who views bank robbery as an unrecognised artform that he is gradually perfecting.

It may sound crazy but Tucker is a calm and rational connoisseur of crime. He sees the heists of his 60s as a major advance on the flashy jobs he undertook in his 20s. He speaks like a painter or a poet looking back over his early efforts, feeling that he has attained a real maturity in his late work. What is spelled out in the New Yorker article emerges in fragments in the movie as we become familiar with the character and his history.

One couldn’t ask for a better actor than Robert Redford, whose low-intensity style is given the perfect vehicle in Tucker. Now in his early 80s, Redford is much older than Tucker was when he pulled off his most daring robberies but this only adds to his veneer of respectability.

David Lowery is not the kind of director that likes to take us inside his characters’ heads, examining their psychological motivations. We see Tucker as the characters in the film see him, as a charming old man who fits no criminal stereotypes. We identify with Jewel, who doesn’t believe Tucker when he tells her – via a small note we never get to read – what he does for a living.

The director’s objectivity extends to the way he films a scene, with the camera wandering away from conversations or getting distracted in the middle of an action sequence. This feels stangely true-to-life, even as it slows down the unfolding of the story.

We are offered no explanation for Tucker’s passion for robbing banks but it’s obvious that money is not a factor. Some people say they only feel truly alive when sailing or racing a motorbike. For Tucker it’s bank robbery that makes him feel complete.

We learn a good deal about Tucker from the investigations of detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck) who is trying to track him down. As he pieces together Tucker’s life story he finds himself admiring his adversary. Never has he encountered a criminal with such a sense of style.

We spend time with Hunt as he goes about his own family life. He discusses Tucker with his kids, falling victim to his daughter’s insight that he is more interested in chasing this criminal than catching him. Lowery makes this even clearer by having Tucker speak with his pursuer in the restroom of a diner. It is an opportunity for Hunt to make an easy arrest but it somehow doesn’t seem legitimate. By this stage Hunt is so enamoured of the game that he can’t bring himself to break the rules.

Aside from strong cameos by Tom Waits and Danny Glover as Tucker’s occasional partners-in-crime, the only personalities we get close to are Tucker, Hunt and Jewel. As we delve into their lives we feel the bank robberies are almost incidental to the story, although the heists are the driving force behind Tucker’s very existence.

Despite his unfailing courtesy, and the fact that he never fired his gun during any hold-up, Tucker is no Robin Hood. He has lived an utterly selfish life. He has walked out on a wife and child, and casually deceives those closest to him. He doesn’t seem to think anyone will mind having a gun pointed at them if he is polite enough when he asks for the loot. He is a self-conscious romantic: a fantasist whose love of bank robbery denotes a deep-rooted pathology. Tucker knows what Ned Kelly knew, that all the world admires those who buck the system to which the rest of us conform. No-one wants to be robbed, but everyone loves an outlaw.

The Old Man & the Gun
Directed by David Lowery
Written by David Lowery after an article by David Grann
Starring Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, Casey Affleck, Tom Waits, Danny Glover, Tika Sumpter
USA, rated M, 93 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 17 November, 2018