The Old Man and the Smile

by Tom Swift

The beauty of living near a movie theater is that you can decide minutes before a show starts to walk down the road, hand over a few bills, and have a seat in the calm dark, popcorn-stench that Netflix could never duplicate.[1] In recent years, I have watched far fewer movies than I did when I was a younger adult. But you drive by the marquee and you see Robert Redford is in town and you cannot not like Robert Redford. Just let me put these groceries down. I will be right there.

I don’t have a lot to say about The Old Man and the Gun. I want to dwell on just one point, really. Greater cinema minds than mine could add more weight and context to this point but here goes: this old-time-looking film, set not just in another era (mostly the early years of the 1980s) but with music, film stock, and cinematic language that make it feel as though it were shot in another era, too, is a perfect coda to Redford’s career.[2]

I was not, frankly, enthralled while watching Old Man but that is one thing I am savoring about having seen it: how without ever straying from the story of this feature film, Old Man also serves as a cleverly contrived retrospective.[3] For me this overlap is amplified by two scenes, both for the same reason.

The first: early in the film, Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek sit in a diner talking.[4] They play infamous bank robber Forrest Tucker and Jewel, a rancher, respectively, but for me they are playing themselves. The characters have just met yet they interact as if with the easy moves of old lovers savoring final sips at a party they didn’t pay for.

The second: late in the film Redford approaches John Hunt, played by Casey Affleck, the one officer of the law who has figured out Tucker is responsible for a robbery spree that has stretched across the country in the days before such events could be easily tracked. By the time of their meeting Hunt has been chasing Tucker, to no avail, over months and suddenly Tucker shows himself in a men’s room on a chance crossing of paths.[5] Tucker approaches Hunt before Hunt really knows what Tucker looks like. But in seconds he knows.

The reason: Tucker’s calling card was his charm. What people always recalled after he had robbed their bank, was that he always treated them as a gentleman. He dressed nicely. He talked kindly. He had a gun but he didn’t feel the need to pull it out and wave it around. No need to scare anyone unnecessarily. He could flash that twinkle-eyed smile and the world swooned. Over and over. For years and years, since he was a young man.

In response to Tucker, in response to Redford, Spacek’s Jewel sort of air laughs, smitten on some level she knows she shouldn’t be, but can’t help herself, and doesn’t want to. She’s living the fantasy nearly every woman of a certain age once had (and might still): being pursued by Robert Redford. Hunt, too, has his man but on some level doesn’t want to catch him. Hunt’s come to see that Tucker is doing what he needs in order to feel alive. He’s come to admire him. Affleck sort of winks through his character. He’s in a trance. I am here with Robert Redford and, sure, buddy, you can do what you want.

Redford has been making money hand-over-fist, at a rate only a bank robber could appreciate, by playing himself, sitting in diners having conversations, entertaining us during adventures, most of them in days gone by. He has flashed that twinkle-eyed smile and the world has swooned, in small theaters, like the one I was in, in towns all over America, since he was a young man. We chased him, we loved him, but in the end we could not catch him or keep and now he is gone.

Art and life overlapped by art again.


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[1] Bonus that that theater doesn’t play thirty minutes of previews before each show.

[2] I did not know this before I saw Old Man, but Redford has said this will be his final film.

[3] At one point Tucker tells Jewel he’s never ridden a horse before. A funny the line coming from the Sundance Kid.

[4] Others might apply the observation to several scenes in which these two interact.

[5] Reminded me of the one scene in Heat that I can remember, in which Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, playing the chaser and the chased, share a similarly impromptu and honest moment — their only one shared on scene.