The Old Man & the Gun review: 'Redford deserves another Oscar nomination for this winningly evocative film'

I always thought Robert Redford has been a totally underrated actor, whose minimalist, unfussy approach has tended to obscure the quality of his work. Since breaking through alongside his friend Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the late 1960s, Redford has remained one of the best leading men in Hollywood, displaying the kind of unshowy naturalism that wins no Oscars but serves the greater purpose of the finished film.

Over a 60-year career (he’s 82) littered with outstanding performances, he’s been Oscar-nominated as an actor just once (for The Sting), and has never won.

He deserves another nomination at the very least for this winningly evocative collaboration with writer/director David Lowery.

Lowery is among the more original voices in American film-making at the minute, and in his last movie, the wonderfully oddball A Ghost Story, Casey Affleck played a man who dies in a road crash, comes back to haunt his wife, and watches in horror as she moves on and their home gets turned into an office block. Lowery and Redford first worked together on the director’s enchanting 2016 children’s film Pete’s Dragon, and in The Old Man & the Gun, the veteran actor takes on a whimsically anti-heroic role with pleasing echoes of the Sundance Kid himself.

Forrest Tucker (Redford) is a career criminal who’s been robbing banks with distinction since his teens, and has staged daring escapes from just about every prison he was sent to. It’s 1981, and he’s in his mid-70s, but his passion for bank jobs seems undimmed, and with the help of two ‘colleagues’, Forrest embarks on an ambitious spree, starting in Texas but continuing up country. Teddy (Danny Glover) does the driving, Waller (Tom Waits) is the beady-eyed lookout, while Tucker carries out the actual robberies — and, boy, does he do them suavely.

Wearing a natty suit, a broad-brimmed hat and a fake moustache, he ambles into sleepy branches, smiles warmly and asks to see the manager. He quietly tells them his real business and, though no one ever seems to actually see one, claims he’s carrying a gun. The robberies are transacted with quiet, almost soothing efficiency, and Tucker never so much as raises his voice to his victims, who afterwards invariably describe him as “a gentleman”.

When a Texan police detective called John Hunt (Casey Affleck) notices that these crimes form a pattern, he christens the culprits the ‘Over the Hill Gang’ and becomes fascinated by their elusive and charismatic leader. The two men are polar opposites, Hunt a plodding cop and dependable family man, Tucker a rootless drifter for whom settling down would represent the ultimate horror. He does, though, appear to toy with it as he winningly courts Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a farm-owning widow who ought to know better than to expect anything much from a man like Tucker.

Hunt hunts, Tucker robs, and the old man seems to relish the chase almost as much as the robberies. He seems at his happiest either sauntering out of a bank with a bag full of loot, or careering across country being chased by a cloud of wailing sirens. And although the film is partly based on a true story, Redford’s character seems mythic, part of the long-line of American outlaws who took one look at settled life, hit the road and kept on running forever.

The role is so appropriate to the actor that it’s hard to believe Lowery didn’t write it with him in mind: it plays to his strengths, fighting shy of too much detail or gritty verities, and allowing the character to drift like a laconic ghost through his own story.

The film, which is shot to feel like a movie of the period and is really quite beautifully made, makes constant subtle references to Robert Redford’s career. There are teasing clips of earlier films, and photos of a young Tucker showing the actor in his beautiful prime. We even see him on a horse at one point, a nostalgic moment that both evokes Sundance and underlines the sad fact that, even in the 1980s, Tucker is an anachronism.

Redford is wonderful in this will-o’-the-wisp role: his easy way with comedy is to the fore, his physical grace apparently undimmed by age. From a distance, his thick auburn hair fluttering in the breeze, you imagine him young and forget that he’s about to ride off into the sunset: then, with a melancholy sigh, you remember that he is.

(12A, 97 mins)

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