Though he has directed only five feature films in a career of less than a decade, David Lowery’s vision of the cosmos is already more clearly defined than most directors achieve in a lifetime. 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, 2016’s Pete’s Dragon, and 2017’s A Ghost Story are all united by a soulful, lyrical quality that I find enchanting. They feel like ballads or fragments of folklore with a uniquely American sensibility, always grasping for something numinous that seems forever just out of reach. Though each features some manner of car chase or gunfight, their atmosphere is prevailingly serene, meditative; indeed, the quality that runs deepest through Lowery’s films is a delicate childlikeness, a tenuous grasp on profound innocence. A Ghost Story may be a bleak and ponderous rumination on mortality, but its titular specter is man under a sheet with eyeholes, no more menacing than Charlie Brown’s Halloween costume. The Old Man and the Gun is no different: the only firearm discharged onscreen is a finger gun.
Following the true story of bank robber Forrest Tucker (played here by Robert Redford) and John Hunt (Casey Affleck), a police officer who wants to catch him, The Old Man and the Gun may be the most laidback cops-and-robbers film ever made. The robberies are sedate affairs, as Forrest walks into banks, affably displays his gun, and calmly walks out with a case full of cash. The pursuit is similarly unhurried. Films of this kind often play up the bond that exists between policemen and the criminals they chase – see Michael Mann’s Heat – but when cop and robber share the screen in The Old Man and the Gun, they regard each other with something like the easygoing affection of children engaged in a playground game. Hunt’s children even lament that if their father catches Forrest, he will be deprived of the pleasure of chasing him.
These two men are the axes around which the story turns. Though the characters are real people, their names seem to have been picked for dramatic aptness. Forrest is untamed, always living outside the city of man; Hunt’s surname, considering his role in the story, is self-explanatory. The Old Man and the Gun is distinguished from peers in its genre by the gentle sensitivity with which it draws the parallels between these two different lives. Forrest is happy, contented; characters frequently note his smile, as if men of his age are expected to be lonely and miserable. In contrast, when we first meet Hunt, he seems nearly catatonic. He sits hunched over his desk, staring gloomily at the lone cupcake commemorating his fortieth birthday. Redford has all the genial, charming presence expected from a movie star of his stature, but Affleck moves through scenes slowly, sleepily; his reedy voice sounds perpetually exhausted even when he displays sincere love to his wife and children. One man is unhappy, weighed down by responsibility; the other is happy because he has no responsibility. Yet as The Old Man and the Gun goes on, the dichotomy between the two grows more complicated. Each man has chosen to commit to a way of life that narrows his options; each man chooses what to sacrifice and what to cling to. Because Forrest chooses to remain a child, the things of adulthood – stability, domesticity – remain inaccessible to him, while John’s choice to be an adult means forsaking the freedom and independence that attend the province of childhood. Each regards the other with a certain wistful fascination.
It is easy to see the appeal this subject matter holds for Lowery, whose movies are always about outsiders. Indeed, his last three films all feature scenes in which lonesome protagonists look longingly through windows into homes they cannot be part of. Ours is a nation that idolizes the individual and romanticizes the outlaw, and movies about outsiders typically lean into the modern tendency to lionize those who are different and demonize the societies that shun them. While Lowery is deeply sympathetic toward his outcast heroes, however, he is also perceptive of the extent to which they choose their isolation. In his westerns, outlaws are childish characters unprepared or unwilling to accept the constraints and responsibilities of maturity. It is only right that his next slated project is an adaptation of Peter Pan at Disney, for The Old Man and the Gun is already about a boy who will never grow up. In one scene, Forrest, pressed to give an account of himself, explains the simple guiding principle of his life: to make his ten-year-old self proud. Lowery seems to take Forrest’s smiles at face value, but he is also keenly attuned to the goods he must give up in order to live the way he does, and the film’s playful atmosphere is leavened by a subtle undercurrent of sadness. In the film’s quietest moments, Redford often allows Forrest’s smile to fade slightly, seeming at once boyish and aged. Scoping out one bank for a robbery, he is distracted by a couple discussing their romance with a teller, and his twinkling blue eyes grow wistful, pensive. Forrest’s crimes appear to be victimless, but for the families he has left behind along the way. Hunt’s investigation leads him to a daughter Forrest never knew, who is so embittered by his abandonment she tells the policeman he should be locked up. Though Forrest does not inflict bodily violence, he cannot always remain blithely unaware of the emotional scars he deals out in his line of work. Fleeing from the police, he commandeers a car belonging to a frightened mother and son and, leaving them huddled on a sidewalk, drives away with a pained look in the rearview mirror.
If Forrest is Peter Pan, a kind widow named Jewel (Sissy Spacek) is his Wendy, and it is through their relationship that Lowery probes into the dark side of Forrest’s criminal life. Their flirtations are sweet, but reserved; he cannot even tell her his real name. Jewel’s name marks her as a prize beyond Forrest’s grasp. During their courtship, he casually steals a bracelet from a store for her, but she makes him return and pay for it. Jewel has a stable of horses; she keeps untamed things like Forrest. Late in the film, Forrest is finally caught by police when he flees to Jewel’s house. When she visits him in prison, he informs her that he has broken out of prison sixteen times and plans to do it again. She shakes her head: “Maybe you should stay put.” When Forrest is let out, he goes to live at Jewel’s home, but despite her kindness, domesticity feels like a prison to him, so he breaks out.
The loneliness that permeates Lowery’s films often seems to stem from the inadequacy of words to communicate oneself, and one begins to suspect this is why he makes movies instead of, say, writing novels. His characters tend to speak carefully, quietly; often, they don’t speak at all, preferring to write. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and A Ghost Story hinge on notes and letters that bridge – or, more pointedly, fail to bridge – the distance between separated lovers. Forrest is also careful about revealing himself. Early in The Old Man and the Gun, Jewel asks what he does, and he writes the answer on a slip of paper and passes it across the table to her. Lowery never shows us what the message says; Jewel only says she does not believe it’s true. When he gives her a handwritten account of his sixteen prison breaks, she again seems unable to grasp what he wants her to understand, and we sense that his correspondence with Hunt is more satisfying to both men. Forrest leaves a handwritten message for the detective hundred-dollar bill at a crime scene, and Hunt visits him in prison to return the favor. Though the two men only meet in person once during the chase, each seems to develop a genuine concern and affection for the other. As in Heat, cops and robbers are able to understand each other in a way others cannot.
From its cinematography to its musical score to its star, The Old Man and the Gun is a loving tribute to American cinema of a bygone era, and it seems only fitting that its hero should live in willful denial of the passage of time. When Jewel first invites him into her home, she shows him the signature of the man who built the house, written underneath the wallpaper. When he returns after his stint in prison, the signature has been framed. What seemed infinite and expansive is now finite, limited. Forrest’s life, forever lived in the moment, is fundamentally unsustainable, and Lowery seems torn between its beauty and its flimsiness. When the FBI catches up to Forrest, Hunt’s wife tells him, “I’m sorry you didn’t catch him.” Hunt replies, “I’m not.” Someone has to bring Forrest’s perpetual childhood to an end, but neither Hunt nor Lowery has the heart to do it.