Film review: The Company You Keep

The Company You Keep
Voltage Pictures, Wildwood Enterprises, Brightlight Pictures, Kingsgate Films, TCYK North Productions

STARRING Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott, Jackie Evancho, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Anna Kendrick, Brit Marling, Chris Cooper, Stephen Root, Lochlyn Munro
WRITTEN BY Lem Dobbs (screenplay), based on “The Company You Keep” by Neil Gordon
PRODUCED BY Nicolas Chartier, Robert Redford, Bill Holderman, Voltage Pictures
DIRECTED BY Robert Redford

SHOT BY Adriano Goldman
MUSIC BY Cliff Martinez
DISTRIBUTED BY Sony Pictures Classics

Screened 2013-04-01


“Retired and Extremely Dangerous”

Robert Redford (76) plays a man who has been living under a false identity for three decades who, using his connections with a pack of morally righteous misfits, sets off on an adventure to regain his identity by clearing his name with the FBI. If this accurate description of Redford’s most recent work, The Company You Keep, sounds familiar that is because it’s also the plot to 1992’s Redford-helmed Sneakers (a lengthier yet considerably lighter and more palatable film). 1994’s Quiz Show is an excellent film and I’ve been cutting Redford breaks ever since – but The Company You Keep really ranks at the bottom of his oeuvre, impressively lower than his last two sleepers Lions for Lambs and The Conspirator. Alas, alas. I will not write the man off, though, if for no other reason than because it is interesting to pay attention to the efforts of an accomplished activist and philanthropist. I’ll be back.

Redford plays Nick Sloan, a former Weather Underground member (a non-violent one we can support sans compunction) who has been living under a manufactured identity and practicing law in Albany for the past thirty years. When former comrade-in-arms is arrested (Susan Sarandon, 66), an old school Albany beat reporter (LaBeouf, somehow still only 26) launches a recklessly ambitious investigation into the WU and outs Mr. Sloan to the media. Sloan, out of options, unloads his eleven year old daughter with brother Chris Cooper (a spry 61) and embarks on an under-the-radar journey westward to track down the one person who can clear his name, Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie, 71). To find her, Sloan must unearth his WU rolodex and see how his old comrades are faring in their ‘straight’ guises: there’s the New England organic farmer played by Stephen Root (61), the grizzled lumber-dealing Milwaukeean played by Nick Nolte (72), the Chicago professor played by Richard Jenkins (65), the Big Sur pot smuggling couple of Sam Elliot (68) and Christie – and Brendan Gleeson (58), who spends his time in a yacht club. I don’t recall what he ‘does.’ Truth be told that with a cast this large, you begin to stop paying attention after the 10th textbook scene of [surprised introduction], [schmoozy rekindled fondness], [expository catchup], [earnest favor entreaty], [reluctant banter], [inevitable assistance] – all of which delivered with Redford’s eternal smart, smug, snappiness: “We both know that at the core I’m right, so let’s stop bullshitting and go to work, OK?” It’s only as an afterthought that I realize I am obligated to mention the slight roles of Terrence Howard (44), the FBI agent leading the Sloanhunt, Anna Kendrick (remarkably older than LaBeouf at 27) as the reporter’s FBI “in,” and Stanley Tucci (52) as the Albany Sun-Times editor, the Giamatti-like non-leading-man we love to see in the role of an endearing authority figure. Jesus Christ – AND indy star Brit Marling (29) who, like LaBeouf, represents the generation to whom Redford gallantly passes his torch, and whose relevant character is introduced well into the second act. What a ridiculous film to explain.


Please forgive this minor digression… The film begins with old newsreel footage to give the uninitiated viewer perspective on the Weather Underground, and it was during this footage when something quite obvious occurred to me with renewed clarity: it is the lack of a draft which allows our government to conduct wars that its populace does not support. There would be enormous dissent and protest for the US’s multiple ongoing wars if more people we knew personally were fighting in them. I do wonder to what extent this is truly polarizing our population; just think about the “two” Americas we often hear indelicate Republicans mentioning; I would venture that a chief requisite in belonging to that “real” America is being directly connected to somebody in combat. Digression over.

I see a tremendous amount of squandered potential in this narrative. I see what could’ve been one of those panoramic American films: an epic road trip westward where we’d encounter the panoply of American perspective, meet those fucking “folks” who make up This Great Land; a long-game look at American dissent and its consequences over the course of multiple generations; and of course the sobering realization by LaBeouf’s character that the WU’s ideologies are just as relevant as they’ve ever been – tempered, of course, by the rational optimism of an aged retainer and his old dogs. As it stands, The Company You Keep is little more than an episodic reunion tour of faces that have been actively in the public sphere for years. Mr. Dobbs, I am particularly surprised at you. Mr. Martinez, I caught you recycling some tropes from your [admittedly super] Contagion soundtrack. Mr. Redford, I find it especially difficult to believe that after your character is inevitably exonerated for his crimes (belated spoiler alert), nobody seems to mind that he has been practicing law for three decades under a manufactured identity. Surely this must be way, way illegal.

written by David Ashley


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