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The Old Man & The Gun ***1/2

by Ruben Rosario

It might no longer be Robert Redford's swan song from screen acting as originally advertised, but this lovely character study, based on the true story of a gentlemanly bank robber in the early 1980s, still works as a career capper and heartfelt tribute to the iconic star. 

Is it worth $10? Yes  

2018 might have more powerful works of cinema. It might have stronger award-season contenders. But it's doubtful most of them will be as lovable as “The Old Man & the Gun,” the latest from “A Ghost Story” auteur David Lowery. This thoroughly winning portrait of real-life career bank robber Forrest Tucker was originally billed as Robert Redford's final screen performance (though the Oscar winner has since wavered on that claim), but make no mistake: Lowery is the real standout here.

The film opens with police chatter, followed by a ticking clock, which suggests we're about to see a tense caper. Not quite. Despite its slim running time, this “Old Man” is mellow and laid back, and all the more enjoyable because of it. Based on David Grann's New Yorker article, the movie sets its comfort-food tone from the get-go, by depicting the most courtly bank robbery imaginable. Tucker (Redford, crinkly eyes and radiant smile wielded for maximum effect) suavely holds up a bank and makes a smooth getaway circa 1981.

When he realizes the cops are in pursuit, Tucker does what any soft-spoken lawbreaker would do. Pull over and help a woman whose car has broken down. Wouldn't you know it? Lowery slyly gives viewers a “meet cute” moment. That motorist on the side of the road is Jewel (Sissy Spacek), and the character will not only serve as Tucker's love interest, but his conscience as well, Jiminy Cricket to his Pinocchio. Sitting across the table from him at a diner some time later, Jewel is understandably skeptical when Tucker, who chooses to let down his guard on instinct, chooses to tell her what he does for a living.

Unbeknownst to the charming reprobate, police detective John Hunt (Lowery muse Casey Affleck, sporting an attractive pornstache) is on his trail. The lawman, a devoted family man in an interracial marriage, is no mere plot device. Lowery devotes a sizable chunk of screen time to look in on Hunt and his loved ones at home, and in one of the film's most accomplished sequences, the detective and his two children stop by a bank at the same time Tucker is robbing it, right under his nose. The overlapping dialogue, paired with Joe Anderson's agile camerawork and Lisa Zeno Churgin's staccato editing, give the scene the feel of a Robert Altman movie from that period. Like the rest of the film, it's jazzy and light on its feet, but not necessarily in a hurry to move things along.

Lowery seamlessly glides back and forth from Tucker's pleasant crime spree, his courtship of Jewel and his interaction with associates Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits). (Reporters dub the trio “The Over the Hill Gang.”) “Old Man” is the kind of movie that casually tosses the fact that Tucker was able to escape from San Quentin at age 70 as an aside. As the film progresses, and Hunt continues to put the pieces of his investigation together, Tucker emerges as a complex figure, a neglectful father with a chronic compulsion to break the law, the one thing that gives him the most pleasure in life. Elisabeth Moss, playing the daughter for whom Tucker was a stranger, is only in one scene, but she leaves an indelible mark, and adds another layer to this fascinating character study.

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Lest you think the movie romanticizes nonviolent crime, Lowery also makes sure to convey the ripple effects of Tucker's actions. A late-in-the-game attempt to outrun police on his tail drives home the notion that, for all his charm, Tucker is not a good guy, even as we can't help rooting for him to, at the very least, find happiness with Jewel. A less inspired movie would have used the couple's differing sense of right and wrong as a road block to their relationship, but “Old Man” is too affectionate to take that path. The closest it comes to depicting this divide comes when Tucker dangles the possibility of shoplifting a piece of jewelry Jewel tries on at a mall. Jewel's reaction encompasses the conflicting emotions at play, straddling the line between decency and the thrill of the steal. Every scene between Redford and Spacek, who astonishingly had never acted in a movie together, is a treasure.

“Old Man” is a triumph of texture, a tender, deeply felt slice of Americana with the magnetic draw of an adroitly structured short story. It exudes enough warmth to melt ice, and it's useless to resist its old-school appeal, down to a letter-perfect ending that not only pays tribute to Redford's contribution to the seventh art, but also serves as a valentine to stubborn old coots eveywhere. This classic vintage car of a movie is running on all cylinders.