There’s a feeling that every movie lover seeks out, whether they are aware of it or not. There’s that special spark; that exciting, warm glow that hits us at the pit of our soul. When we’re young, it’s an easy feeling to find. We feel it in our heart every time we sit down in the dark whether it be in a theater or a living room. Every new movie becomes our favorite. The older we get, the harder it is to experience on a regular basis. We still feel it, and even if we are easy to please when it comes to films, it’s still rare to feel, even when you find yourself enjoying something new. But, every now and then, a movie comes along that sparks that feeling. The one that makes you bounce in your seat with excitement you can’t contain like you’re that little kid again. You bite your lip, you put your hand to your mouth, or perhaps you just clasp them together in your lap. It’s the feeling of slowly realizing that you’re falling in love with a movie again.
I had that feeling when watching A Ghost Story in 2017, and I experienced it again when, in 2018, I finally sat down to watch David Lowery’s The Old Man & The Gun. It did not happen right away, but about ten or fifteen minutes into the film, there is a scene in which Forrest Tucker, our protagonist, cleverly and calmly robs a bank without raising any suspicions, including those of the detective who is currently waiting in line with his son, the detective who will eventually dedicate his life to hunting down Tucker. While the detective tells his son a corny joke, moving slowly forward in line, Tucker makes small talk with the panicking manager who has just been informed is going to be robbed. After Forrest and his crew casually stride out the doors, and the manager announces to everyone that they have been robbed, the detective is gobsmacked at how this could have happened. I could not wipe the smirk from my face even if I tried. The scene made me ecstatic.
Over the last couple of years, it has become evident that David Lowery is a nascent treasure in American cinema. American cinephiles must certainly recognize a special gift we’ve been given in Lowery while we have it because it’s not every day that we get a filmmaker with such a gentle and magical vision as Lowery has.
Lowery’s films typically feature subjects that you would consider heavy, maybe morbid, probably unpleasant: a young doomed couple tries to avoid the inevitable destruction of their gleeful crime spree as long as they possibly can. A man dies, abandoning his partner through death, and it is only in the afterlife that he reflects upon his own selfish mistakes. An aging bank robber comes to terms with the fact that he only has so much time left in both his waning career and his life. There is nothing heavy or overbearing about Lowery’s films, though. His films are light on their feet, lovely, masterfully paced, and remarkably patient in a way that most filmmakers would worry about losing the attention span of their audience. He never loses them though. He holds them close with a magical sense of wonder, that spark of falling in love that you feel all the time when you’re young. David Lowery is the only American filmmaker I can think of who has excelled at the quiet, wonderstruck, and contemplative sense of silence and atmosphere that animator and filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki mastered. Not to say that there are no other American filmmakers with a sense of atmosphere, but the still, meditative beauty of films like My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away are hard to recreate outside of Miyazaki’s imagination.
There’s another secret ingredient to what makes The Old Man & The Gun so magical: whether or not this really is Robert Redford’s career swan song, it certainly is a dazzling showcase for what makes his performances so memorable. His eyes never stop twinkling, and his smile could halt an entire army in its tracks. Although the movie is based on the real life of career criminal, Forrest Tucker, Redford finds a way to make him a character that is uniquely carved out in his own archetype. During his and Sissy Spacek’s second diner scene together, I found myself getting emotional while watching the two of them flirt. A moment later, I realized why. His portrayal of Forrest Tucker reminded me of my grandfather. In another life, the man who helped raise me could have been a bank robber if he’d really wanted to be.
Redford is supported by a truly remarkable cast of veterans and newcomers as well. Both Danny Glover and Tom Waits more than prove themselves worthy of Best Supporting Actor nominations, and Sissy Spacek reminds us of just how essential she is (and has been for years) to American cinema. Her performance in this film strikes a particular emotional nerve. I knew this woman. Deep down, we all have. There has been a Jewel in everyone’s lives at some point or another.
The Old Man & The Gun may have the premise of a crime drama, but at its heart, it’s a love story. It’s a dreamy, nostalgic, bittersweet love song to life, the passions that drive us, the loves we leave behind, and the lives that could have been. It still isn’t set in stone that Redford is done with acting for good, but if he is, then this is a role that’s fitting to take a bow with.