Rough but heartfelt, Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep is the kind of film you’re glad still exists, even though you wish it were better. Though billed as a fugitive thriller, it works much better as a reflective drama. Director Redford plays Jim Grant, a widowed father and successful Albany lawyer whose hidden radical past (and long-submerged identity) suddenly comes back to haunt him when a former Weather Underground colleague, played by Susan Sarandon, is taken into custody by the Feds for a deadly bank robbery decades ago. He goes on the run to try and find an old flame (Julie Christie) who might be able to clear his name. Pursuing him are a tenacious FBI agent (Terrence Howard) and a scheming reporter (Shia LaBeouf), who is determined to reveal our hero’s true identity.
As a piece of suspense, it ain’t exactly North by Northwest, or even Three Days of the Condor; the awkward attempts at chase scenes make it clear that Redford the actor, who has always given off a slightly lugubrious air, has lost a step or two physically. But he was never much of an action hero, or action director, to begin with, and the good news is that he isn’t really trying to make an action film, whatever halfhearted genre flourishes he may toss in here and there.
As a director of actors, though, Redford still has a generosity and a focus that serves the story well. Besides Sarandon and Christie, Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, Stephen Root, Chris Cooper, and Sam Elliott all show up in supporting roles, and however small the parts, they’re given space to work. The camera at times seems content to just sit there and watch them — a good thing, because we are, too. There’s something behind these actors’ eyes that reaches beyond the screen; that kind of suggested inner life is crucial for a film like this, which is all about past deeds and forgotten ideals.
In a way, these characters are all ghosts, and the somber, measured style of the film helps enhance this haunted quality. Redford has always been a bit of a throwback directorially; back in 1992, A River Runs Through It felt like the best movie nobody made in 1952. But now his classicism feels almost confrontational — as if he’s trying to prove a point rather than just making movies the best way he knows how.
The younger actors don’t always fare as well as the older ones, however. LaBeouf is supposed to be ambitious and dogged — sort of like Kate Mara’s character on House of Cards, perhaps — but he comes across more as a snot. “Thirty years ago, a smart guy like you would have joined the cause,” Redford’s character tells him at one point, and all we can think is, No wonder they failed. Howard, meanwhile, is wasted yet again. Anna Kendrick and Brit Marling fare a bit better.
This isn’t the first time this sort of story has been tackled, and well: Sidney Lumet’s 1987 Running on Empty, featuring an Oscar-nominated River Phoenix, and the German director Christian Petzold’s The State I Am In, from 2000, are both about the desperate lives of former radicals on the run from the law, trying to break free of their dark legacies. The Company You Keep may suffer in comparison to those films, in part because it’s a hybrid, a touching drama with weak suspense elements. But this moody, somber work still feels at times like a welcome return to form for Redford the director, if not Redford the star.