Forrest Tucker was a real-life career criminal who enjoyed what he did. He was an escape artist. He escaped from prison 18 times successfully and 12 times unsuccessfully. That’s how the man himself described things. He favored bank robberies, usually small banks in small towns, and is thought to have amassed more than four million dollars during his chosen career. Yet it wasn’t so much the money Tucker was going for, it was the thrill of getting away with something.
His first escape was in 1936 at the age of fifteen. He was arrested for car theft. However, his most famous escape was later in ‘79. In full view of the San Quentin prison guards, Tucker and two others built a kayak and paddled away. He died while incarcerated in 2004.
With no relation to the late actor of the same name, it’s probable we would never have heard of Forrest Tucker had it not been for the article The Old Man & the Gun published in The New Yorker in 2003, written by journalist David Grann. David Lowery, who directed Robert Redford in the 2016 remake of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, adapted Grann’s article, then once his 2017 release A Ghost Story was completed, commenced directorial duties for the story of Tucker’s later years, once again working with Redford. The film begins with the title, This Story, Also, Is Mostly True.
Shot widescreen with an attractive, intentionally grainy look of the late seventies by cinematographer Joe Anderson, Redford’s elderly Tucker casually robs a bank, calmly walks away, then drives. With cops still in pursuit, their sirens wailing, Tucker notices a damsel in distress at the side of the road along the interstate. Never in a rush, he slowly pulls over, allowing the speeding cops to pass by – though in plain sight, they miss him completely – while he helps a lady named Jewel (Sissy Spacek) try to start her stalled pick-up. “Do you know anything about engines?” she asks, somewhat amused by his obvious lack of automobile knowledge. “Not really,” he replies. And from there it’s friendship at first sight.
The thing about Tucker and his bank robbing habits is that he does it with style. He strolls in, politely explains to either the teller or the bank manager that he has a gun, then asks that they fill his bag with money. There’s no threat, no violence, and no bullets are fired; it’s a simple case of walking in with an empty bag and walking out with a ton of cash. “He was a sort of gentleman,” a manager tells the police after reporting the robbery. And when a teller is asked if there was anything particular she could tell the detectives about the old man who wandered in with a gun, she replies, “He seemed… happy.”
Danny Glover and Tom Waits co-star as Tucker’s friends who often accompany him on a job, acting as lookouts and helping hands should Tucker require an extra pair. Plus there’s Casey Affleck as soft-spoken Detective John Hunt who makes it his duty to find and arrest Tucker, though the closer he gets to the man, the less he wants to catch him. It’s not that he intends to let the robber continue stealing, it’s more a case of getting to like the guy. There’s a level of admiration Affleck’s detective has for Tucker. Though the best and certainly the most moving scene from a supporting player is when Elisabeth Moss, more familiar for her role in the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale, is interviewed by the police. She’s the daughter Tucker probably doesn’t even know exists.
Like Tucker’s genial character, there’s an affable likability to the film. One of the immense pleasures of this leisurely paced telling is watching Redford and Spacek, two major Hollywood stars, working together. While enjoying coffee, Tucker tells Jewel what it is he does. At first, he lies, telling her he’s in sales, then after a moment’s thought, decides to be open. He literally spells his occupation out on a piece of paper and slides it across the table for her to pick up and read. “I don’t believe a word you say,” she tells him. “I don’t blame you,” he replies.
In truth, had The Old Man & The Gun not starred such a famous movie legend as its lead, it’s possible that director Lowery’s laid-back style would have underwhelmed. But while it’s probable that most young audiences won’t know either Redford or Spacek, or their previous marquee value, the audience for whom the film is aimed should be delighted. Consider this. If the Sundance Kid had survived the attack of the Bolivian army, then later escaped back to America to live into his eighties, he might easily have become Forrest Tucker.
MPAA rating: PG-13 Length: 96 Minutes