In Lowery’s hands, that story becomes analogous to Redford’s stardom, as he’s one of the last icons of New Hollywood (the freewheeling pre-blockbuster studio era of the late ’60s and ’70s) who still sometimes graces the silver screen. Redford’s Tucker is reliable, someone with lingering respect for his craft, decades removed from his glory years, but still possessing a familiar twinkle in his eye. He shows up to his robberies dressed in a suit and tie, wearing a hat, and never raises his voice. “You say, ‘I wouldn’t want you to go and get hurt, cause I like you, I like you a lot,’” Tucker says early in the film, explaining how he speaks to a bank teller. “‘So don’t go breaking my heart now, okay?’”
Octogenarian or not, Redford is still perfectly capable of breaking hearts, and Tucker is the latest in a long line of charming outlaws he’s played over the years in films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, and the deeply underrated Sneakers. The Old Man & the Gun begins with him stopping on the highway to help out Jewel (Sissy Spacek), whose car has broken down. The two strike up a friendship that turns romantic, but when Tucker tells her that he’s a bank robber, she laughs him off.
The ludicrousness of a man his age doing this work helps Tucker get away with it for so long. He cases each bank with the help of his colleagues Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits), they grab the cash without anyone getting hurt, and then they dump it under the floorboards. The money itself seems beside the point—the “Over-the-Hill Gang,” as they are eventually called, seems to be in it mostly for the thrill of being alive. But rather than framing the story as a formulaic “one last heist” movie, Lowery finds comfort in the small details of Tucker’s routines. This is a film about familiarity.
Eventually, someone figures out a pattern behind the swath of robberies committed by polite older gentlemen all over the American Southwest. Detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck) of Austin, Texas, becomes the Holmes to Tucker’s Moriarty, tailing him around the country in an effort to arrest him, but at no point does The Old Man & the Gun morph into a tense cat-and-mouse thriller, à la Michael Mann’s Heat. Hunt’s interest in Tucker’s case is motivated partly by how small-time it is, which keeps it off the FBI’s map, and partly by a genuine appreciation for Tucker’s professionalism.
Without Redford, none of it might work; he’s the perfect balance of relaxed competence and movie-star magnetism. Lowery understands exactly why Jewel stays in Tucker’s orbit even as he dodges questions about his life, and why every robbery goes off without a hitch. As a director, Lowery has shown real skill for milking pathos from something understated (like a man wearing a sheet in 2017’s A Ghost Story) or from a brand that’s easy to overlook (like his surprisingly graceful remake of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, also starring Redford). The Old Man & the Gun might seem slight, but by the end of its 90-minute running time, as Lowery deploys some vintage footage of a younger Redford (playing a younger Tucker), it’s hard not to get swept up in its old-movie magic.