I know what I’m doing.
Finding an occupation you love is rare when familial and financial responsibilities often dictate a path towards compromise. It’s therefore hard to let one go. Just ask Forrest Tucker, a career criminal in and out of prison since age fifteen whose life consisted of planning his next bank robbery or jailbreak depending on his mailing address at the time. The guy broke out of San Quentin at the age of 70 and then went right back at it for the sheer joy of the act itself. Rather than money, this senior citizen coveted the thrill: the thrill of walking in and out of a bank without ever putting his finger on his weapon’s trigger and the thrill of the chase. He wasn’t “making a living.” He was living.
It’s the perfect sort of feel-good story you’d read in the New Yorker because that’s exactly where journalist David Grann got it published. Despite being a tale rooted in illegal activities, no one (seemingly) was physically hurt. Tucker was described as a consummate gentleman (outside of the thieving) by witnesses and victims alike. He ultimately married three different women and fathered two children during his run with none ever having a clue about what he did until the police phoned to tell them he’d been arrested. Any time you can write down that type of duplicity without being forced to vilify the subject along the way, you have yourself a bona fide American crowd-pleaser. So why wouldn’t writer/director David Lowery want to give it the cinematic treatment too?
If there were reasons, none could beat the best one to move forward: Lowery just worked on Pete’s Dragon with Robert Redford and knew he’d provide Tucker the likably charismatic turn necessary for The Old Man & the Gun to be a success. Add a second layer with the fact that its structure as a swan song to Tucker’s long career mirrored Redford’s own (he announced his retirement and stated this would be his final performance) and it becomes a product of fate. Switch out banks for film sets and robbery for acting and Lowery ostensibly delivers a fictional onscreen autobiography for one of Hollywood’s greatest talents. This character is doing the thing he loves most in this world knowing the consequences pale in comparison to the alternative.
Our introduction to Tucker comes as he’s exiting a bank, briefcase of cash in-hand. He hops in a car with the make and model matching the police scanner dispatch being fed into his “hearing-aid,” drives out of frame, and returns with a completely different vehicle making its way out of town. As police sirens blare in the distance behind him, he spies a broken down truck and pulls over to help both as a personality trait and to ensure he has someone in the passenger seat in case anyone suspiciously pulls him over. The crime itself is very intentionally pushed to the background as this opening sequence of events focuses entirely on Tucker’s now genuine flirtations with Jewel (Sissy Spacek). It’s all smooth talk and good-natured laughs.
We move from this happy-go-lucky gentleman making connections and doing everything he wants to despite being wanted in multiple states over to Detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck) on the morning of his fortieth birthday. Even when he enters his kitchen to spy his wife (Tika Sumpter‘s Maureen) and two kids ready to celebrate the occasion, he face is devoid of a smile. He hates the idea of what forty means, seems pretty tired with his job as a policeman, and doesn’t appear to have a single shred of personality beneath his slouching façade. Hunt serendipitously stops at his bank before dropping the kids at school only to have Tucker and his accomplice Waller (Tom Waits)—with Teddy (Danny Glover) waiting in the car—enter behind him.
The juxtaposition between these two is blatant but effective as Lowery expertly lets Tucker quietly stick the place up while Hunt’s voice is heard dryly telling his son a joke. A robbery literally happens under this detective’s nose and it plays out with an effortless vibe of pure bliss rather than excruciating suspense. The event connects the pair for the duration of the film as Tucker begins to thoroughly enjoy the idea of being one step ahead of the cops and Hunt rekindles his passion for the job now that he has a formidable opponent to take down. It all kind of reduces to a two-hander with crosscut vignettes of their jobs leading them onto an inevitable collision course thanks to Jewel residing in Hunt’s city.
The Old Man & the Gun proves a real charmer with more than a few memorable scenes. Watching Tucker and Jewel fall for one another is sweet, but nothing beats his attempt at making her a criminal accessory to see how she responds. Hunt eventually tackles the archives and meets someone who might know the identity of the perpetrator (Elisabeth Moss), but it’s only when he comes face-to-face with the object of his quest that we finally see signs of a pulse for a worthwhile payoff to his dourness. Their escapades may be set during the early 1980s, but Lowery shoots it as though a 1970s retro throwback to Redford’s heyday. The grainy soft focus, nuanced acting, and Daniel Hart‘s upbeat piano score place us into an aesthetic time machine.
And while there’s not much to the plot, I’m not sure you can exit the theater without a smile. There are enough tiny moments like Waits’ Waller clamoring for excitement, Spacek’s Jewel seeing Tucker’s gun, and Affleck’s Hunt talking to his kids over mundane activities (changing a tire) to create a world beyond any cat and mouse. We’re seeing two solitary lives blooming before our eyes with the minutiae of everyday events revealing why we get up in the morning. Lowery never takes the Tucker and Hunt parallel too far into cliché territory either, stopping instead at a place of mutual respect and understanding. It’s a slice of life with plenty more before and after what’s seen and yet we feel as though we know everything we need.
courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures