Robert Redford bringing the 60s back in his 70s in “The Company You Keep”
The Company You Keep
Directed by Robert Redford
Written by Lem Dobbs
Starring: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper
Run time: 125 minutes
MPAA rating: Rated R
In the beginning—that is, around 1960—there was the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), active on college campuses in promoting left-wing causes. Then, about 1969, a spinoff called the Weather Underground, or Weathermen, took a more radical approach, with bombings and violent demonstrations. That’s just a note for the history-impaired to help explain the background of “The Company You Keep,” directed by and starring Robert Redford and a panoply of other familiar actors as well as some younger ones.
The film opens with the arrest of former Weather Underground member Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) for the long-ago bombing of a bank, in which a guard was killed. Catching wind of the story is gung-ho young reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf—”Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” etc.—for the Albany (New York) “Sun Times.” Ben wangles a prison interview with Sharon and then nags his editor (Stanley Tucci, in crusty editor mode) into letting him continue to investigate the story. Watching old TV footage, Ben figures out that respected Albany lawyer Jim Grant (Redford) is really former Weatherman Nick Sloan, who was also implicated in late 60s violence.
Jim/Nick, whose wife died a year earlier in a car crash, is absorbed in his law practice and in raising his 12-year-old daughter, Isabel (singing star Jacqueline Evancho, a natural actor). But when he realizes that Ben is on his trail, he deposits Isabel with his brother, Daniel (Chris Cooper), and takes off incognito, in dark glasses and baseball cap.
What he’s after, in addition to avoiding immediate outing and arrest, is Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), a former girlfriend and the key to getting his name cleared. In the process, Jim/Nick encounters a variety of old Weather associates who could lead him to her, all played by well-seasoned actors such as Brendan Gleeson, Richard Jenkins, Nick Nolte, and Stephen Root. He also meets Rebecca Osborne, a young law student (played by Brit Marling), daughter of one of his old buddies; we later discover what his connection to her is.
Screenwriter Lem Dobbs (“Kafka,” “The Limey”) based his screenplay on Neil Gordon’s 2003 novel. The writing is competent, except for one stagey speech—”Secrets are dangerous things, Ben. We all think we want to know them…” that Jim/Nick gives on finally meeting Ben.
It’s rewarding to revisit the faces, and to see new or relatively new ones, and the film’s suspense is involving, as Jim/Nick travels the country via rental car, and Ben tries to catch up with him via technology such as tracing his cell phone calls. We finally meet Mimi, an unreformed revolutionary now occupied in smuggling marijuana into Big Sur (is that any job for a revolutionary?). The conclusion, of course, is something I won’t reveal.
But I wonder why there seems to have been so much scrimping in the making of this film. For starters, the whole thing was shot in British Columbia–from settings supposedly in small-town Vermont to downtown New York to the Chicago Art Institute to a cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Each look is close—but not quite close enough.
And then there’s hair and makeup, much of it overdone or done wrong. Susan Sarandon, in prison being interviewed by the young reporter, is in full makeup: pancake, lipstick, the works. Shia LaBeouf’s chinful of stubble remains the exact same length throughout. And the wigs! Redford’s hair is more tousled and blond than it was in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” 24 years ago. As for Julie Christie—her wig covers so much of her face that it seems to paralyze her. Or maybe that’s the excessive pancake makeup. What a disappointment to see one of my favorite actresses doing so little acting!
Redford and Christie are often shown running and sprinting like the youngsters they once were. Who’s fooling whom? They’re both in their seventies. (Which, by the way, makes it unusual that the hero would have a 12-year-old daughter.) Why can’t septuagenarians be honored for what they are, not for what they once were?
If I’m being nit-picky, it’s because too many wrong details detract from what could have been a more effective political thriller, a genre that’s hard to pull off but satisfying when it works.