The Old Man and the Gun is a delightful and effortless film. The combination of Redford’s charm, unobtrusive direction, and mellow score chain together a series of scenes and sequences that tell the rebellious tale of The Over the Hill Gang. However, it’s the narrative structure that runs underneath it all that gives this film meaning and elevates it beyond a simple tale of runaway robbers.
Forest Tucker (Robert Redford) robs banks. In fact, he’s been stealing and breaking out of prison since he was a little kid. Sixteen in all—with the last a very audacious escape attempt from San Quentin involving a sailboat named Rub a Dub Dub.
Now, here’s the thing—is The Old Man and the Gun another attempt by an accomplished and aged actor to draft an allegory of one’s body of work? Is Redford trying to do the same thing that Eastwood did in The Mule? The sailboat, after all, calls to mind Redford’s last one-man film, All Is Lost.
Writer/director David Lowery confirms his intent to pay tribute to Redford's life:
It was always there, and that was the one thing that I knew was gonna be there because we put it, when you turn a camera on and point it at Robert Redford, you instantly get the entirety of who he is as a movie star without having to do anything. That’s just there front and center. So, it was always on my mind, and yet the thing that I focused on the most was how to craft a story around that.
The difference between Mule and Gun is the difference between the poignant and the meaningless. The former lacks a greater narrative—it tells the tale of a drug mule who eventually ends up in prison. The latter describes a complete story—Gun makes an argument why Redford’s character (and possibly Redford himself) lives his life the way he did all those years.
And why he always did it with a smile.
His playful voice really came through, that was something that I remember being really struck by and wanting to lean into because he is so playful. Even when he is doing interviews, doing press, or just hanging out, he has a very playful sense of humor, and I felt like that was something that had disappeared from screens for a while. It had been a while since he’d engaged with that side of himself on screen, so I really wanted to give him a chance to bring that back.
How do we know one is a story, and the other is not?
The Alternative Perspective
A complete story pits two competing points-of-view against each other. Each point-of-view argues the accuracy of its own approach until eventually, one switches over and adopts the other’s perspective.
This switch is what gives the events in a film greater meaning. Did that switch result in success? What is the right thing to do? Does it feel good?
A story makes its argument by showing how that switch in perspective led to success or failure. A complete story goes even further by offering an emotional appraisal of whether that switch was good or bad.
In The Old Man and the Gun, John Hunt (Casey Affleck) offers that alternate point-of-view. In sharp contrast to Redford’s infectious charisma, John lives a life strung out, cynical, and depressed. In fact, John is so caught up in the pointlessness of his career as a detective that he completely misses Forest robbing the bank directly behind him.
I can't figure out if I need to try a whole lot harder or if I should just quit.
So you gonna quit and do what?
I really don't know. Something useful. Something where I don't have to clean up a mess that keeps on making itself every time I turn around.
Two competing perspectives.
Forest keeps going no matter what. No matter how many times he’s been captured, no matter how many times he’s been chased, no matter how many times he’s evaded the police and ended up scot-free, Forest keeps returning to what he does best—living life with a smile.
The brief moment when Forest tries to quit is altogether too short. The smile fades, and his life seems as if it’s over. He doesn’t even have a sense that he should hurry up on his bucket list—the end of all things isn’t a consideration for him.
Contrast that with John who, when we first meet him, looks like he can’t wait for it all to come to an end. John wants to be the guy who catches Forest. He’s tired of showing up to work every day to find the mess he cleaned the day before messy once again. Nothing he does makes a difference, and it’s all because of the system, or because of the people, or society—it’s never about him.
John and Forest meet. They clash. They play their game of cat-and-mouse until finally, they part ways.
John doesn’t catch him. The Feds do. But at that moment, John doesn’t care anymore. Not because he’s fallen into a darker place, but rather because he no longer expects the worse to happen for him. Instead of sleeping another night shift off, John finds himself out in the front yard gardening—an act of hopeful expectation.
The Effect of a Relationship
Typically, the critical relationship in a film consists of these two opposing characters. While the more plot-centric aspects of this relationship find a home in the game between Forest and John, Forest’s relationship with Jewel (Sissy Spacek) accounts for more of the character and thematic aspects.
Merely being in the presence of the other drives Forest and Jewel’s relationship forward. Each has a remarkable effect on the other—a result that goes unquestioned and unchallenged.
Their romance is daring—as daring as the cat-and-mouse antics between Forest and John—and with similar consequences.
By bringing Jewel into the mix, the Author accounts for the more heartfelt and emotional aspects of exploring this kind of relationship.
When it comes to being happy, the effect another has on our life cannot be understated. The Old Man and the Gun drives home this message, not only with its complete narrative but also through its very existence—one can not enter into a relationship with this film and not feels its effects.
One leaves happy.
The Effects of a Complete Story
This happy effect is why The Old Man and the Gun scores a 92% critical rating, and why The Mule hits a paltry 62%. Not merely because it’s a “happy” story, but rather because it makes an argument for how to be happy.
And it does so with artistry and sophistication.
In a culture rife with apocalyptic and dystopian futures, The Old Man and the Gun is an unexpected delight. We all encounter moments of despair and challenging situations that might lead us to determine that it’s all not worth it.
The Old Man argues that it is—and the only way to keep smiling is to keep going.
Forest’s Main Character Resolve is Steadfast, which is why he flirts with this momentary lapse of a drive.
John, the closest thing to an Antagonist, is very much concerned with Doing. With doing the same thing over and over again without seeing any improvement.
His conversation with his daughter regarding the FBI's takeover of the case begins to open John up to the idea of his Influence Character Solution of Expectation:
Maybe it's a good thing.
How is it a good thing?
Because they aren't as you are. So they won't catch him.
Well, thank you, babe.
And if it was your job, you would definitely catch him. But that's why it's good that you're not. Because if you caught him, you wouldn't get to chase him anymore.
I like how you think.
In the end, John switches to Forest’s point of view as evidenced by the fact that he’s not upset he didn’t catch him. Planting a flower is a symbol of his Influence Character Solution of Expectation and his Changed Influence Character Resolve.
The Relationship Story Throughline is a hand-off between Forest and John and Forest and Jewel.
With Forest and John, we get the cat-and-mouse game and the Relationship Story Concern of Doing. We see a bit of this Doing Concern when Forest and Jewel attempt to rob the jeweler and a bit when it comes to living on the farm, but the majority of the more Plot-centric appreciation of the Concern lies in the relationship between cat and mouse.
The romance that develops between John and Jewel accounts for the Relationship Story Issue of Experience and the Relationship Story Problem of Effect. Less a problem and more a source of drive, the effect each has on each other is inescapable. They can’t help but experience one another and gain greater and greater familiarity. It’s almost like they’ve known each other for a long, long time.
The film reaches the end and Forest is still robbing banks and always smiling. By concluding the narrative with this Story Outcome of Success and this Story Judgment of Good, The Old Man and the Gun makes an excellent case for continuing on no matter what obstacles are thrown your way—it’s the only way to guarantee you’ll go out with a smile.