It’s tough to think of another case where my opinion of a director has turned around as quickly as it has for David Lowery. His first movie, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, felt like a half-baked attempt at a Terrence Malick film. Pete’s Dragon was another in a line of completely unnecessary Disney live action remakes that didn’t move the needle. So I couldn’t exactly say I was psyched to see A Ghost Story despite hearing excellent things coming out of Sundance. Those who pay attention to my year end movie rankings will know that A Ghost Story was in my top five films of last year. That’s a pretty major step up from two films I came away from with less than stellar feelings.
For his fourth film, Lowery has made another genre and tonal shift, teaming with Robert Redford for what he claims is his last film role (though, as Clint Eastwood is about to prove once again, that’s a “believe it when you see it sort of claim”) for an adaptation of the true story of infamous (and impossibly polite) bank robber Forrest Tucker. He takes the money with a smile on his face, but Detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck) doesn’t have the same mirth in his heart as he tries to end his crime spree. Tucker’s co-conspirators, Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits) may be the key to Hunt tracking down his new nemesis. But for Forrest, life isn’t just about robbing his banks and getting his money. After a chance meeting on the side of the road, he strikes up a romance with Jewel (Sissy Spacek), who doesn’t know his true calling in life.
The Old Man and the Gun marks the fourth film of Lowery’s career and the fourth genre he’s attempted. After a Malickian drama, a family fantasy film and a time-traveling metaphysical mind twister, this biopic is much more of a breezy comedy. Tucker seems like the role Redford was born to play. His charm and good looks are fundamental in making his story seem plausible; it’s a lot easier to imagine someone like Redford waltzing into a bank with a smile on his face and a gun in his pocket and walking out with some extra cash without even thinking of firing his weapon. Indeed, charm is the name of the game in The Old Man and the Gun, not just for Redford, but for Spacek and Glover and Waits, a coterie of old Hollywood standbys getting another shot at the spotlight.
It makes for an enjoyable reversal of the standard cop-chases-perp formula. We're so used to seeing the grizzled old detective try to catch a young upstart criminal in his last case before retirement. Here, the young gun is on the side of the police, making for a fun interaction as this geriatric scoundrel runs circles around his pursuer. But the whole experience is enjoyably low risk and low stakes; there's no violence or shootouts or car chases or anything crazy. It's breezy and simple and fun, a nice antidote for the bloodier crime movies we've become used to over the years. You almost don't want to see him caught, morality of the situation notwithstanding. Redford is just so damned lovable here. We could have gotten more from Glover and Waits (and, to be fair, we can always get more Tom Waits, even if he’s in every scene of a movie. This is a universal truth), but the point of the plot is Redford and Spacek and Affleck, and the ancillary characters give us the color we need without using up too much of the oxygen in the room.
As Lowery’s career continues to evolve, it’s clear he has much more to offer than the diminishing returns of his first two films. The Old Man and the Gun may not have reached the heights of A Ghost Story, but it shows another arrow in his quiver, a fun, straightforward, eminently watchable and quickly paced romp with a gaggle of great performances to back it up. It’s hard to tell what’s going to come next from David Lowery, but I can’t wait to find out what it is. If you told me I’d be saying that after the credits rolled on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, I’d think you were a crazy person. And yet, here we are.