There’s something quaint about the latest film from actor and director Robert Redford. It’s got some high drama and it’s a decent enough thriller, but the particular plotting and subject matter that comes in the backstory for The Company You Keep would seemingly lend to Redford to make some of the more self-serious fare he’s been known for over the past couple of decades. That, for better and worse, isn’t the case as he delivers a straight-up entertaining but somewhat lightweight journalism based potboiler.
Following the arrest of a former 1960s Weatherman activist that was implicated in a Detroit area bank robbery that ended in a heat of the moment shooting of a bystander, brash, young Albany reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) connects the dots in the case and eventually uncovers that a local lawyer (Redford) has been tied to the same crime and living in hiding under an assumed identity for the past thirty years. Fearing for his own livelihood and that of his young daughter, the accused goes on the run, but the big question facing Ben and all of the man’s associates is if he’s running to hide or to ultimately clear his name.
Based on the novel of the same name from Neil Gordon and from a screenplay full of great dialogue and sometimes suspect plot contrivances from Dark City and The Limey scribe Lem Dobbs, Redford’s latest is as stripped down and unpretentious as it gets. It’s not the usual prestige project that he usually has his name attached to. Even with the late 60s subtext and the loss of true American liberalism that would stand up to social injustices at all costs – both topic well within Redford’s personal wheelhouse – he abandons a lot of the historical material save for an interrogation scene involving Susan Sarandon’s initially arrested co-conspirator that feels plunked into the film simply to explain to the younger folks what the 60s were all about.
But that’s part of the allure of the film. Redford elevates the material and stacks his cast far more than he has to and ultimately crafts a film that’s better than the airport paperback material almost deserves. As a director, he certainly hasn’t lost a step as the film moves at a brisk enough pace. It looks great and he still knows his way with actors. It feels relaxed rather than lazy. Not for nothing and not in a bad way it feels like the kind of movie where he could direct a scene and just sit back at the end of the day and not really worry about how it would be perceived. It’s all surface level and refreshingly so.
As an actor, he still maintains the natural charisma and charm of his youth as the co-lead whom the audience is constantly unsure of until the final third. The recently maligned LaBeouf matches that by putting in the best work of his career. He plays hot shot types very well, and this kind of flat footed journo is much more suited than his talents than something like the lead in Wall Street II. The two play well off each other in the few scenes they share together, and it never becomes a father/son dynamic. Both characters know what the score is and what they want to ultimately happen in their lives and neither is on the same page.
The rest of the cast comes almost needlessly stacked with familiar faces either playing friends or foes to the heroes. Aside from Sarandon, there are some great supporting moments from Richard Jenkins (as a former activist turned professor), Chris Cooper (as Redford’s brother), Stanley Tucci (as Ben’s budget minded boss), and Brendan Gleeson (as the original investigating detective). This says nothing of Terence Howard and Anna Kendrick as a pair of FBI investigators, Julie Christie as the one person who can blow the doors off the case, Sam Elliot as that woman’s husband, Brit Marling as the retired officer’s daughter, or Nick Nolte and Stephen Root as two former buddies of Redford. Like I said, it’s stacked, but it never distracts from the main story by way of stunt casting.
The story itself kind of peters out towards the ending, though. There’s a whole lot of set up for two big twists. There’s one that’s kind of obvious and doesn’t really pan out. Then there’s the other that’s harder to explain since it comes at the very end, but serves to end the film on an almost unrealistically tidy note. It’s a shame because right before that there’s a scene that would have give the film the proper, almost melancholic ending the material screams for, but it instead finds a way to negate that for some unknown reason. It seems strangely tacked on and oddly tampered with.
The Company You Keep is coming out just before the summer movie season for a pretty good reason. It’s not a bad film, but it’s one full of familiar faces playing out standard material with no frills whatsoever. There’s definitely a time and place for movies like that, and there’s no better time and place than now before it gets lost in a sea of blockbusters and family fare.