The legacy of American cinema is altogether too great, too multi-faceted to be represented adequately in one picture; the legacy of any of its most defining figures alone still too vast a subject for a single summarization. Better, then, to lean in the other direction. American cinema's most iconic living figure, Robert Redford, reconciles with his contribution to culture in David Lowery's The Old Man & the Gun, calmly, modestly, with a wry tenderness that intimates an awareness of the disparity between what he represents and what this picture is capable of representing. It's simple, short and bittersweet, a piquant little morsel that evokes the glories of old through loving recreation, only to dissipate just as its flavours begin to coalesce into something substantial, before the glories of old become the follies of today. Redford wants to remind us who he was, what he has done, and that he's still here!
A charming wisp of a picture, The Old Man & the Gun gets by on its charm, and on the gentle games Lowery plays in evincing it. A filmmaker prone to vapid grasps at nostalgia, albeit earnest ones, is better when he lets his earnestness take over; this movie is more of a tribute to the styles of filmmaking that pervaded American cinema when Redford's acting career was at its height, imbued with the lean, unpretentious style of dramatic storytelling of Redford's directing career. Lowery's scale is intentionally small, and sometimes so much so as to be near-insignificant, and at only 90 minutes there's a lot here that withers into the background. Just as one may fondly recall the poignant contributions of supporting performers Danny Glover and Tom Waits, one barely recalls those of Tika Sumpter and John David Washington. Furthermore, after promising beginnings, Lowery's determination to display as few signs as possible of anything of the sort wears the movie out, reducing it to a banal series of scenes designed to reach an inevitable conclusion as swiftly and as inconsequentially as possible. When Lowery lets us in, it's a delightful experience, but when he shuts us out for the sake of stylistic expression, it's oddly tiresome for such a brief movie.
But there's always Robert Redford (there's also always Casey Affleck, who's not necessarily bad, just too superfluous to warrant such prominence). And there's Sissy Spacek too, the kind of actor who makes every role seem like the role she was born to play, the role she's been playing all her life. Redford's been playing this role all his life - that's the joke, and the reason for the status he now holds within American cinema. He and it are inextricable not only for what they have accomplished together but for their remarkable similarity: solid, talented performers, rarely too challenging, and too rarely exceptional, but watchable to the end. The Old Man & the Gun is emphatically not the end for Redford, and it's as fitting a conclusion for his career as it is a continuation, a declaration of relevance even as it must dredge up the past to do so. That legacy, though, is what has brought both him and us here, reflecting fondly and looking ahead excitedly.
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