In its first 15 minutes or so, writer-director David Lowery's The Old Man & the Gun looks on track to be that rarest of things, a Hollywood throwback every bit as good as what it's throwing back to. The film that follows proves engaging enough, a pleasurably breezy crime story and character study. But nothing in it measures up to its start, not even Tom Waits, as a wild-card member of a bank-robbing crew, telling a bleakly funny story involving a break-in and a Christmas tree.

That's less a slight against the bulk of the film than it is praise for its kickoff, which finds Robert Redford, as a courtly bank robber, sitting down at a cafe with Sissy Spacek, playing the horse-raising widow he's quite literally picked up while making a getaway. The two talk and flirt, both cagey yet curiously open, beaming at each other one moment and fighting to stay poker-faced the next. He tells her he's in sales but then, teasingly, writes down on a slip of paper what it is he really does. She takes that paper and for a breath looks terribly confused — then she pulls out her reading glasses. And then she doesn't quite believe him, even as she seems both amused and frightened by the possibility.

Each beat of this plays out with exquisite delicacy, as does the exchange where the crook lays out, with exacting detail, how he'd rob this diner if it were a bank — and then takes it all back, letting her think he was joking. Through it all the two laugh and smile the awkward way people do when they've only just met and are gushing inside with too much emotion. That's always exciting to behold, but here it's a pair of old-school, name-above-the-title, Oscar-hoarding movie stars doing the gushing, their radiance and charisma enriched by age, experience and familiarity. Both have been turning up on our screens lately, with Spacek playing spectral and batty in Castle Rock and Redford adding rumpled gravitas to the travails of Captain America: Winter Soldier, but only here do they truly get to turn on our screens, to fill them with light. In this enchanting, leisurely opening, they're not just reminding us of why we've loved them before — they're giving us reason to love them anew.

Writer-director Lowery (A Ghost Story; Ain't Them Bodies Saints; the Pete's Dragon remake, also with Redford) has always favored the look and textures of 1970s New Hollywood, with that age of directors going off the grid to lens gritty American truths. A student of the textures of that era, that haze of sun and dust, he has never before fully captured the vibe as he does in The Old Man & the Gun, creating the sense that we're watching a movie rooted in the past rather than one merely aping it.

The film is set in 1981, as the national malaise was curdling into something even worse, and Lowery and his crew seem to be documenting this restless period rather than just evoking it. In that diner, the camera on occasion drifts to take in the extras, the hard-working waitstaff, the way life carries on utterly disinterested in the drama unfolding between the stars. The milieu is convincing, bravura in an invisible way, all this effort spent in the interest of faking a long-gone ordinariness. (In Paul Dano's upcoming Wildlife, a thoughtful and moving period piece, voices on the staticky TV broadcasts keep pointing out that the year is 1960; here, the newscasters are too busy living '81 to mention it.)

Redford is cast as out of time, even at the dawn of Reaganism. He plays Forrest Tucker, a real-life crook imagined here as a Ronald Reagan–esque figure, a septuagenarian stickup man who twinkles at the bank tellers and managers he demands surrender cash to him. We see him work his routine many times, in a montage less hurried than full scenes are in today's blockbusters. One teller announces, in her panic, that this is a hell of a thing to happen on her first day. Tucker assures her she's doing excellent work. Later, when he has to commandeer a car during a getaway, he looks shaken that a child is weeping at the sight of Tucker's gun. It's as if Tucker is hurt that anyone might believe so kindly a fellow might actually fire it. The America he lives in isn't the innocent one he believes he embodies.

Tucker and his crew — including Waits and Danny Glover, still too old for this shit — cross the country, hitting small banks and heading toward the big score that will fund their retirements. Except we know that Tucker won't and can't ever stop. Meanwhile, they're pursued by a Dallas cop (Casey Affleck) who is humiliated not to have noticed, while waiting in line at his local branch, that Tucker was robbing the joint. Spacek's character, Jewel, tends to the horses at her ranch, where Tucker occasionally turns up.

Outside of that diner opening, the cast is mostly inhabiting types rather than embodying characters. (Don't expect the kind of finely detailed life-of-a-thief storytelling of Bill Forsyth's undervalued Breaking In, starring Burt Reynolds, from 1989.) This lessens the impact of the film's climactic developments, which find Tucker persisting in his Tuckerness, doing what he does because he sees nothing else for him to do. Rather than a tragic inevitability or a comic detachment, the final scenes have about them the whiff of resignation, possibly meaningful or possibly not. They could be scored to Reagan himself, quipping, “There you go again.”

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