"Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life."
When Mark Twain coined this phrase, he probably didn't have bank robbery and jailbreak in mind. But for the late Forrest Tucker, the inveterate career criminal portrayed by the great Robert Redford in David Lowery's new film, The Old Man & the Gun, the idiom nonetheless fits.
Tucker "spent his whole life locked up, except for the times that he broke out," as one character quips toward the end of the movie, which hits theaters Friday. And yet, Tucker is almost always smiling, whether he's holding up bank tellers with utterly well-mannered threats; flirting with Jewel (Sissy Spacek), the woman he falls head over heels for at the film's start; or biding his time behind bars, plotting his next daring escape.
Most thieves do it for the money. Tucker does it for the joy of taking the cops on a car chase as stolen dollars billow from his trunk. If that isn't the definition of job satisfaction, nothing is.
Tucker stands in stark contrast with Detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck, attempting to recover from his moment in the #MeToo spotlight), Lowery's secondary protagonist. Hunt is a man dissatisfied with his stagnating career and caught in a perpetual state of world-weariness, and he's the one tasked with bringing Tucker to justice. (The one edge Hunt has over Tucker? He has a real mustache. Tucker just wears a fake one as a component of his robbery disguise.)
It's tradition that in cops-and-robbers movies, the cops see a bit of themselves in the robbers and vice versa; think of Point Break, or The Departed, or Inside Man, or, best of all, Heat. The Old Man & the Gun isn't these movies. It's light-hearted and airy, a breezy crime flick where the audience roots for the criminal because, dammit, he's just so polite and gentlemanly. If you were the teller on the business end of Tucker's pistol, you wouldn't feel quite so bad about giving him the money. He's courteous and kind, and he might even tell you that he likes you. That's the kind of attitude you have when your life's work is your life's passion.
Tucker, for the most part, is a happy man. It's his blithe contentment that shapes the film and defines his relationship to Hunt, who by no means enjoys similar peace. He can't even celebrate a birthday without getting clowned on by his colleagues in the force: Rather than cake, they offer him a Ho Ho, topped with a lone candle. "It's all downhill from here," they tell Hunt as he gazes defeatedly at the chocolate treat. The Old Man & the Gun strikes regretful, achingly nostalgic chords throughout, but it never tops this image's pure, unfiltered sadness. The Ho Ho is more than a Ho Ho: It's unimpeachable proof of how low Hunt's life has sunk. "Pick the thing you want to do," Hunt admonishes his kids later, "because you're going to be stuck with it."
It's not exactly the most encouraging fatherly advice, but it's a necessary warning regardless. And it is a great adage for Tucker, at least, who clearly relishes his work. Once a thief, always a thief.
In crime, Tucker has found something he loves — and when Hunt catches Tucker's trail, he finds something he loves, too: the thrill of the investigation. And not the act of investigating in general, but of tracking Tucker specifically. In the pursuit of the old man, as well as his gun (which, it's worth pointing out, we don't actually see during the film's robbery sequences), Hunt finds unlikely inspiration for living on his own terms — and indeed just for living, period. A dance he shares with his wife, Maureen (Tika Sumpter), in the middle of their kitchen reads as a minor moment on the surface, but it's pivotal for Hunt's character, a sign that he's ready to shed his self-pitying languor and feel joy again.
Even a spontaneous date night — a trip to the diner that Tucker frequents with Jewel — feels downright revelatory. Hunt, it turns out, has plenty to look forward to, contrary to his colleagues' needling. His chance encounter with Tucker in the diner restroom drives the point fully home, though the encounter isn't quite that chance — Tucker knows Hunt's after him, and also happens to admire Hunt nearly as much as Hunt admires him. As they chat, Tucker emanates an almost volcanic warmth as his smile spreads across the craggy topography of his face. He charms Hunt enough to keep the detective from throwing the cuffs on him right then and there.
But the truth of it is, Hunt had already fallen under Tucker's spell well before then. In tailing this charismatic rascal, Hunt has found meaning in his work. The change is subtle, but it's there, revealed in the slight shifts in his behavior and outlook. This is not the man we met at the beginning of the movie. This is a man with renewed purpose.
The Old Man & the Gun is ostensibly Redford's final on-screen role; in August, he announced his retirement from acting. If he makes good on that pledge, he's capping off his sterling filmography with a dazzling crowd pleaser, and walking off the screen beaming.
And of course he should. He's just doing what he loves.