November 2018

Arts & Letters

‘The Old Man and the Gun’ and the outlaw Robert Redford

By Harry Windsor
David Lowery’s new film pays too much tribute to the Sundance Kid

Robert Redford has been around so long he goes very nearly unheeded. That changed when he announced, shortly before the Telluride premiere of The Old Man and the Gun (in cinemas November 15), that the film would be his last. Whether that admission was born from Redford’s desire to read his own obituaries or to drum up publicity for the film, it seemed clear that a stocktaking was in order. This was, after all, the Sundance Kid himself. And he was no doubt canny enough to realise that he would never get a more loving send-off than this one, a fact that seems to me inextricable from the film’s problems.

The Old Man and the Gun’s director is David Lowery, who broke through with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a love story about a Texan outlaw, which grabbed the attention of the Sundance founder when it premiered there in 2013. Redford had long wanted to play Forrest Tucker, a perennial prison escapee who robbed banks in Dallas and everywhere else, and had optioned David Grann’s 2003 New Yorker article on Tucker’s life. Even William Goldman had tried his hand at whittling the story, spanning some six decades, into film form. (The legendary screenwriter discusses his inability to do so in his book Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade.)

Enter Lowery, who had grown up in Dallas making movies, still lives there, and for whom Redford has always been a lodestar. “My mother told me about Sundance when I was 10 or 11 years old,” he says from a hotel room in Zurich, where the film is making its European debut. “Something about the idea of independent film instantly appealed to me as a stubbornly independent 10- or 11-year-old. My fascination with Bob, my love for him, is inseparable from that independent spirit, which is something he used to define himself as an actor before he even started Sundance.”

That outlaw spirit, of course, has always co-existed with his status as a Hollywood golden boy. As Lowery points out, he was a beautiful man who never tried to obscure his beauty with a bad haircut or make-up, as contemporary leading men do. He famously turned down The Verdict because the lead character was an alcoholic. But he’s at his most effective when his cool is complicated by something flappable. One of Lowery’s favourite Redford performances is in 1969’s Downhill Racer, written by James Salter. Redford plays a petulant ski star who butts heads with his coach, played by Gene Hackman. It’s one of Redford’s most interesting performances, and Lowery was keen, he says, to bring some of that prickliness to Forrest Tucker.

Reader, he failed. Tucker is courtly to a fault, and one suspects the star wouldn’t have it any other way. To be fair, the character’s charm is true to Grann’s portrait of the man. Tucker was a teen when he was first sent to jail, and he died there, after several escapes and re-incarcerations, at the age of 83. In between time he modelled himself on the stick-up men mythologised when he was growing up during the Depression, figures like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd. After his most famous escape – from San Quentin in 1979, in a boat he slapped together in the lumber shop – Tucker went on a bit of a run with two others, holding up banks across Texas and Oklahoma. None of the three men was in the first flush of youth, and they became known as the Over-the-Hill Gang.

Lowery’s film is set largely during their spree, with Danny Glover and Tom Waits as Redford’s accomplices, and Casey Affleck as the cop on their tail. The writer-director describes the writing process as the most difficult of his career. “Part of that is because it is a true story, and I felt some sense of deference to the truth; I wanted to honour the events and the people. But it was big. The first draft was nearly 150 pages, because Forrest Tucker’s life just had so much incident. It was too big to be a movie in many ways.”

In the years that Lowery was working on the script (during which he made two other films, Disney’s Pete’s Dragon and the metaphysical romance A Ghost Story), he set about narrowing its focus, boiling it down to a few representative scenes. “I tried to find ways to suggest the scope of Forrest Tucker’s true life without actually showing every single thing that happened to him.”

The long gestation process allowed Lowery to realise that he wasn’t Michael Mann, and that he wasn’t particularly interested in cops and robbers. “My strengths are not in telling true stories, and not in being a journalist. I had to ask myself what it was that made me excited about this movie. And what it ultimately came down to was the fact that I wanted to tell this story with Bob. I took Forrest Tucker out of my mind and wrote a part for Robert Redford.”

Lowery found comfort in the fact that Tucker was someone who self-mythologised. “He saw himself as an outlaw in the old-fashioned sense. He saw himself as a movie version of an outlaw, as Jimmy Cagney. And I think he would have been delighted to have Robert Redford play him in a movie, regardless of how true or accurate the representation may have been.”

Lowery’s identification with Tucker nevertheless feels honest, even if he is more interested in the actor playing him.

Tucker began his career as the sun set on his profession, just as security cameras were being placed in banks, while Lowery describes himself not so much a man out of time as one “straddling two time periods and trying to exist in both simultaneously”. He shot The Old Man and the Gun on super 16, and the film would be a self-conscious throwback even without the presence of its leading man. “All of my films are looking over their shoulder at something that’s receding,” he says. “I’m always trying to grab hold of something that’s slipping into the ether of the past.”

In that sense, Lowery is an emblematic film-maker (not to mention an emblematic 37-year-old) in an era in which nostalgia is the pre-eminent force in American moviemaking. “My movies are inherently nostalgic, because I’m a nostalgic person,” he says. “I love old things. I live in an old house. We have a big old dining-room table that makes the room feel more antique than it already is. But at the same time I have every possible Apple product and I drive an electric car and those things excite me as well. I look to old films for inspiration, but at the same time I’m always looking to take those old techniques and give them a jolt of electricity.”

Tipping the hat without succumbing to pastiche must, I suggest, be tricky. “It’s difficult, and I’m getting better at it. I’ve transgressed before into the realm of fetishisation. And there are certainly things in The Old Man and the Gun that feel fetishistic in terms of the degree of affection that I’m displaying towards the past.” Like what? “I’m definitely having fun with the ’70s-style zoom lens on this movie, pushing those shots past breaking point, because I just love watching them. With Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, I leaned even harder into it with lens flares, and the sun in the sky being at just the right point, backlighting the characters in the most romantic way possible.”

But Lowery is also keen to dash to pieces a visual style he describes as “devotional to an older style of filmmaking”. “It’s something I’m constantly working at, because I don’t want to give up my love of the past. There’s no shame in that, and in fact some of the most modernist tendencies in cinema were developed over a hundred years ago. Look at the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer, a filmmaker who’s just as modern as any working today. But I also want to figure out new ways to think, as Dreyer did a hundred years ago. How can I advance the language of the medium in which I’m working?”

Like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, The Old Man and the Gun is comfortable with ellipses, and is less interested in the kind of genre staples – shootouts, car chases – that for another filmmaker might be the whole point. Whip-pan montages are followed by long, talky scenes in which Redford meets-cute with Sissy Spacek. The heist elements disappear halfway through, along with Glover and Waits. What’s left is a film intent on embellishing the iconography of its star, with a jazzy momentum that begins to feel a little weightless, like a karaoke version of the kind of Hollywood movie to which the film makes constant reference. At one point Redford and Spacek watch Two-Lane Blacktop, the 1971 classic that Lowery elsewhere pays homage to with a car chase that puts Redford behind the wheel of a ’55 Chevy.

Perhaps the most effective moment of metatextual movie-love comes in a rapid-fire montage that cycles through all of Tucker’s prison escapes. It includes a clip of a young Redford, on the lam in the woods, in Arthur Penn’s 1966 film The Chase, and it’s one of the most oddly striking moments in the film. “That scene was never emotional until we put that clip in there,” says Lowery. “Suddenly it had a heft that I had not anticipated … It really breaks you out of the movie, but in a valuable way, I think. It forces you to think about who Robert Redford is, who he was, and all the breadth of history that exists between those two incarnations of the same man.”

What the actor represents to Lowery is, the director admits, something to which he still doesn’t have an answer. That uncertainty hovers over the film, finding an outlet mostly in more quotation marks. One scene, divorced from what comes before and after it, sees Redford on a horse, a phalanx of cop cars visible in the distance. Lowery admits the sequence’s aim was simply to get Bob on a horse. “Even though it makes no sense logically, it makes perfect sense cinematically. It gives him that moment where he is both Forrest Tucker the character and Robert Redford the actor, existing simultaneously as one in a moment that is both part of this movie but part of every movie he’s ever made.”

Unfortunately there’s not much to the character beyond those iconic postures. He’s almost childlike, an idea underscored when the camera pans from Redford and Spacek in a booth to adolescents sitting at the diner counter, on dates of their own. “I definitely thought of the character as a teenager,” says Lowery. “He went to prison when he was 13, and it made sense to me that he stopped progressing as a human being at that point. He never reached adulthood.”

Grann’s New Yorker article afforded Tucker the chance to give voice to his ruefulness, and to acknowledge the people – wives and children – he’d hurt along the way. But when Spacek goes to visit Redford in jail, his apology feels patently hollow, and the character just seems like a charming blank. Lowery admits to being moved by Tucker’s remorse, but also unconvinced. “It never felt like that was the character whose story we were telling. And I wonder if Forrest Tucker actually felt that. I believe he could have said it, but it felt to me he was saying what people wanted to hear. And that was a degree of depth to which this movie was not quite going to get.”

Redford’s remit to Lowery, as his producer-star, was to make it fun, and that extends to the finale, in which Tucker shakes off domestic bliss to waltz into another bank, to the backing of Daniel Hart’s twinkle-eyed piano-lounge score. The cue gives the sequence a spin very different to the melancholic one the filmmaker envisaged on set. “The idea was to have him walking into the bank with the wind blowing and just the sounds of the city. It was going to be a really jarring and profound conclusion. But watching it for the first time, it felt empty. It just kind of sat there. And I realised we needed to end with a smile, in spite of the fact that the epilogue of the film is largely critical of Forrest. Even if that smile is too complex for its own good.”

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

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