(2012)2.5Perry SeibertAs much as you hear that people supposedly hate it when actors start talking about politics, Robert Redford has managed to sustain a lengthy and influential career both in front of and behind the camera while never shying away from the social issues that are most important to him. He's often, though not always, picked projects (Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, All the President's Men, A River Runs Through It) that speak to his lefty and environmental interests. With his ninth directorial effort, The Company You Keep, he examines what living by your ideals can cost you personally.
Redford stars as Jim Grant, a small-town lawyer who harbors a dark secret: His real name is Nick Sloan and he was once a member of the radical '60s group the Weather Underground. He's been hiding from authorities for decades because he's wanted in association with a bombing that caused an accidental death. His public façade is exposed by intrepid young reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) following the unexpected arrest of another former revolutionary named Sharon (Susan Sarandon), who had also eluded capture since the fateful bombing. When Sloan realizes he's about to be exposed by Shepard, the old man goes on the run again, attempting to find the one member of the group who can clear his name and keep his loved ones safe.
Redford's film, which was based on a novel by Neil Gordon and scripted by the often brilliant Lem Dobbs, is actually a pair of rock-solid procedurals. The steps Nick takes and the people he visits slowly fill in his complicated backstory, while Ben's own investigation gradually uncovers who is really responsible for what happened the day of the tragic attack. It's a very well-constructed plot that gives Redford the chance to cast an abundance of great actors (Nick Nolte, Stephen Root, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, and Chris Cooper, to name a few) who get to come in for a meaty scene or two.
However, if there's one thing that continually trips up Redford as a director, it's his unrelenting seriousness, and The Company You Keep sticks with this solemn history. He studiously avoids letting the viewer have too much fun with the thriller aspects of the story; you're never far away from a tortured monologue about guilt or a passionate defense of radical actions or a bluntly stated moral quandary. Time and again, the film makes its subtext painfully obvious.
There is a wonderful image late in the movie that comes at the end of a chase: It's a visual representation of the cliché in which the hero declares, "I'm too old for this crap." In that moment you can see precisely what drew Redford to this material. It's a graceful climax to a picture that too often tells us exactly what we should be thinking.
It's been nearly 20 years since Redford made Quiz Show, and in that time his directing projects have been increasingly dull. It's accurate to say that The Company You Keep is the best film he's made in two decades, but anybody familiar with The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Horse Whisperer, or Lions for Lambs will understand how low that bar is.
Working from a script by Lem Dobbs, Robert Redford directs and stars in The Company You Keep as Jim Grant, a former member of the Weather Underground who has been hiding out under an assumed identity ever since members of the group participated in a bank heist that ended in a guard's death. When a young reporter figures out the truth, Grant must stay one step ahead of the FBI, who want to bring charges against him for the decades-old murder. The Company You Keep screened at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.