In the past decade, David Lowery has made movies about thieves, runaway kids, ghosts, and giant dragons. But really, they’re all about the same thing. Whether Lowery’s films are set in the past, the present, or the distant future, they’re all suffused with a gentle melancholy about the irreversible slip of time. What we lose and who we love shape whoever it is we will become. But no matter what, we can’t go back.
“Nothing truly is ours. The cyclical nature of history consistently reveals that,” Lowery told me following the release of last summer’s A Ghost Story. “Things keep getting built up and then falling apart, because nothing is permanent.”
That’s why all of Lowery’s films feel elegiac — none more than his newest, The Old Man & the Gun, which stars Robert Redford in what the actor has said will be his last role. Now 82, Redford is not just a Hollywood legend but also a key figure in the history of independent American film as the founder of the Sundance Film Festival.
In The Old Man & the Gun, both Redford and Lowery are returning to their roots. For Redford, a role as a lifelong bank robber feels like a fitting cap to a career effectively launched half a century ago with his role alongside Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
And Lowery’s career was launched when his second feature film, 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. It’s about a pair of thieves in love, seemingly modeled on Bonnie and Clyde; when their life of crime comes to an abrupt end, they’re forced to figure out a way to keep living.
So The Old Man & the Gun — which, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is based on real characters — is a natural fit for both star and director, and in Lowery’s hands, it feels like both an homage to the past and a gentle step toward the future.
The Old Man & the Gun is based on the true story of an incorrigible thief and escape artist
Lowery adapted the screenplay from a 2003 New Yorker article about Forrest Tucker, a career bank robber who simply refused to stop “working,” even after 18 successful escapes from prison. (David Grann, the New Yorker staff writer who reported on Tucker, also wrote the article on which 2016’s The Lost City of Z was based.)
The real Tucker died of lung cancer in prison in 2004, at the age of 83. The Old Man & the Gun picks up late in his career — he’s said to be in his “late 60s” — when he robs a bank with his gang of aging thieves (Danny Glover and Tom Waits), in the most polite way possible. Yes, he threatens the bank teller by quietly showing a gun. But then he compliments her and smiles at her, and he does it in such a gentle manner that she’s stymied and kind of charmed, and he gets away with it, as he has for decades.
On his way out of town, being chased by the cops, he stops to help a woman (Sissy Spacek) whose car broke down by the side of the road. (Among other things, the vehicle provides good cover from the cops.) She’s a little skeptical of him, but he seems gentlemanly, and when he offers her a ride, she accepts.
Her name is Jewel; her husband died a few years ago, and now she lives alone on a ranch. In one single scene in a diner, she explains her past to him; he tells her, in so many words, what he does for a living, though he doesn’t reveal his real name. They fall in love in the blink of an eye, and we witness it happen.
Redford and Spacek’s chemistry is easy and lived-in, though the two have somehow never been in a film together. Their characters connect in a way that makes sense for two people who’ve seen most of life and know the precise nature and contours of its hard knocks, yet retain just enough idealism to fall in love.
Watching them together is the greatest pleasure of The Old Man & the Gun, especially because Lowery chooses to settle the film in the 1970s visually as well as narratively, with the kinds of long, slow takes and zooms and the sort of film grade and coloration you’d see in a film from that much earlier era.
Of course, both Redford and Spacek (who is 68) were much younger back then, so we haven’t had the opportunity to watch either of them act through that particular, literal lens. But it’s easy to imagine they’d have starred in this film if it were made in the 1970s and they’d been stars from a much earlier age.
So the effect of The Old Man & the Gun is pleasantly disorienting: It looks old, but the actors in it are old now, which gives it the feel of having been made in some alternate timeline, or of an homage to both something that could have happened and something that did.
Forrest Tucker was emblematic of an era whose legacy in American culture lives on almost exclusively in the movies
But The Old Man & the Gun isn’t just a love story. Tucker is being chased by a police officer and a family man named John Hunt (played by long-time Lowery collaborator Casey Affleck), who becomes moderately obsessed with Tucker’s case once he realizes that Tucker and his gang have been pulling off ultra-polite robberies all over the country, from Texas to Oklahoma to Missouri. Tucker and his crew carry guns, but they never hurt anyone. At one point, someone tells Hunt that if Tucker said he’d never fired his gun in his life, it’d be easy to believe.
What makes Tucker so interesting — and so dangerous — as a character is how he upends what people expect of a bank robber. The gentleman thief is a long-established character in fiction, and robbers, thieves, and celebrity outlaws were among the most famous American celebrities in the 19th and 20th centuries, virtual household names. John Dillinger, Jesse James, George “Baby Face” Nelson, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and Butch Cassidy himself were all familiar figures, their movements and exploits and arrests tracked breathlessly in the papers and, eventually, turned into films.
Some of them did actually hurt civilians. But in scene after scene, Tucker’s victims speak to Hunt admiringly, even gratefully, of the way he robbed them. He was so charming! He was so friendly! He was kind. He was a gentleman.
Of course, Tucker is a rascal and a criminal. He’s a thief, not to mention a liar. He doesn’t tell Jewel his real name, even after multiple conversations in diners and on her porch. She suspects as much, but it doesn’t quite sync with what she knows of Tucker the man, who is attentive and interesting and gentle and funny and strangely honest about a lot of who he is.
That’s probably why watching The Old Man & the Gun also feels like an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Technically, Forrest Tucker is more of an antihero than anything else. He is the definition of incorrigible, and he’s a criminal who takes advantage of other people not because he can really justify it, but because he just really likes doing it. He has to face the consequences, sometimes, but he’s skilled at escaping them, too. Even at the end of the film (no spoilers!), he’s barely changed in this respect. The Old Man & the Gun is not a movie about the redemption of Forrest Tucker.
What it is, in typical Lowery fashion, is a longing look backward at a bygone era, with a cocked eyebrow. From where we sit now, it seems incredible that someone who escaped from prison so many times and robbed so many banks just kept getting away with it over and over, when many others — especially others who weren’t friendly, charming old white men — couldn’t imagine doing the same.
But the glamorous-thief-as-celebrity — someone we’re fascinated by and root for, even as we see them doing something bad and getting away with it — is an American institution, because we gravitate as a culture toward the alluring rogues who just refuse live the life they’re expected to live. (The 2018 analogue is probably our clear fascination with grifters.)
So there’s an element of privilege running through the story. And when The Old Man & the Gun puts Tucker up against Hunt — a younger, law-abiding man who isn’t quite as besotted with the rogue’s failure to face consequences as everyone else — the film’s generational contrast comes into focus. In showing the ways Tucker’s life both attracts and hurts Jewel, The Old Man & the Gun suggests that thieves can be fascinating and cruel, glamorous and deadly, charming and loving and incapable of really being connected to anyone. (That’s in line with Lowery’s take on the Bonnie and Clyde myth in his film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which depicts the toll that a life of crime can take on a romance, a family, and a life.)
It’s a gentle inversion of the glamorous thief trope, so gentle that if you’re not paying attention, you might miss it. But in his typical fashion, Lowery both pays homage to older films with thief heroes and bends the ending around to make us think. It’s his best film yet, a fitting marker for his first 10 years of filmmaking. And as a capstone for Redford, it’s a stellar finale: A man who started out playing a thief ends by playing one again — one who hasn’t grown any wiser, but maybe the world around him has, a little bit.
The Old Man & the Gun opens in theaters on September 28.