Robert Redford’s latest film—only the ninth he has directed in a career that’s spanned some 50-odd years—is a dinosaur. I don’t necessarily mean this as a negative; just putting it out there for descriptive purposes. The Company You Keep is long, lumbering and unabashedly earnest, the kind of talky, politically-minded adult thriller that went out of fashion decades ago, except nobody told Redford. It feels like a relic from another time, which isn’t exactly a bad thing.
The 76-year-old Sundance Kid stars as Jim Grant, a sad-eyed widower with an 11-year-old daughter (just go with it) who finds his quiet, upstate New York idyll shattered when a hotshot kid reporter (Shia LaBeouf) figures out he’s actually Nick Sloan, a former member of the Weather Underground who has been wanted by the FBI for these past few decades in connection with a bank robbery gone wrong.
So here he goes, on the lam again, which is basically just an excuse for Redford to traverse the country having uneasy reunions with a spectacular array of aging Hollywood royalty. There’s a valedictory tone to the picture, with this bunch of old pros delivering bittersweet nostalgia riffs. It’s hell on the pacing, but wonderful to watch. Redford obviously knows a thing or two about movie-star iconography and deploys the who’s-who supporting cast accordingly.
Adapted by Lem Dobbs from Neil Gordon’s 2003 novel, The Company You Keep will never be mistaken for a crackerjack thriller. It’s got the glossy lugubriousness of those movies Redford used to make with Sydney Pollack, and what passes for action sequences are not really worth mentioning. (Cliff Martinez’s score cannibalizes his work on the Drive soundtrack to distracting extent, and brooding ‘80s synth-pop is just an odd choice in general, given the material.) You’ll see the twists coming at least half an hour before the characters do, and if you happen to miss a plot point, somebody will be along to explain it again two or three more times.
And yet the foursquare, retro presentation somehow feels just right, given the material. The lack of urgency gives these actors plenty of breathing room, and they’re all such a pleasure to watch that the creaky genre elements can be dismissed as a necessary annoyance.
Time has done nothing to diminish Redford’s star wattage—or his vanity, and a fair amount of The Company You Keep is spent just watching him do stuff like dodging cops and catching trains. It’s still fun to see him thinking, always plotting his next move. Of course, this would not be a Robert Redford movie if he didn’t get to give a lecture or two, and his scenes with LaBeouf (who pays proper homage by working a wormy riff on Dustin Hoffman’s All the President’s Men performance) grant our star-director-activist a podium from which to pontificate about the corruption of the media and death of investigative journalism. But at least these scenes are funny, which is more than you can say about Lions for Lambs.
Any given two-shot of Robert Redford sitting with Nick Nolte serves as a shocking visual depiction of the long-term consequences of varying lifestyle decisions. He looks like hell warmed over, but Nolte is a gas, hulking over his co-star and speaking in a guttural rasp so low, it only comes through the sub-woofers. Susan Sarandon gets one of the movie’s better-written monologues, putting smarmy little Shia in his place once again by explaining just what it was like to be on the streets protesting during such a violent, turbulent time. (“It was hardly groovy,” she says, to my unending delight.)
Even after all this time, Nick Sloan is still pining for the one who got away. Naturally she’s Julie Christie, because who else could you imagine Robert Redford still being hung up on 40 years later? (She’s also the only person who gets better lighting than her director.) Political fire undimmed, Christie’s now trafficking mass quantities of weed and spouting talking points to her day trading lover, played with just the right note of weary resignation by Sam Elliott.
A similarly lovely chord is struck by Richard Jenkins, who all but walks away with the movie in a couple of short scenes as a former SDS leader settled in to minor celebrity status on a college campus. He’s not at all happy to see his old friend again, and shares with Redford some flinty exchanges suffused with a terrific, autumnal regret. It’s moments like these when The Company You Keep briefly becomes the great movie it could have been: Unforgiven for hippies.
But I guess in the end, we’ll just have to settle for a mediocre thriller enlivened by an overqualified cast. Hardly groovy, but you can do worse.